Eighth Grade is a revelation, and that's not just hyperbole. I mean that literally: approaching my mid-forties, this movie revealed to me how aging creates biases even in those of us who actively push against a biased look at contemporary youth.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about how radically the world is for young people and kids today, compared to when I was a kid. I'm not even that old, and when I was in high school, we had one special room dedicated to computers. We didn't have these laptops at every desk, let alone mobile devices in every hand. I've spent so much time thinking about how technological advances have inevitably changed later generations, I lost sight of how the way kids are, their hopes and their anxieties, they way they interact with each other -- on a purely emotional level, nothing has really changed at all. It's just the platforms that have changed.
Watching thirteen-year-old Kayla (a superb Elsie Fisher) navigate her world with all-consuming uncertainty is like a time-warp to when I was the same age. She's raised by a single parent, as was I, as were a huge number of us. Unlike my single mother, Kayla lives with a single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton, also excellent). And he worries about his daughter, tries awkwardly to connect with her, makes his own stupid mistakes, and swells with a pride for her that she is too preoccupied to see.
First-time feature writer-director Bo Burnham, previously known as a musician-comedian (his two comedy specials, from 2013 and 2016, are currently streaming on Netflix), has said in interviews how deliberate he was about choosing a girl for his protagonist in this movie rather than a boy. Boys this age aren't that emotional -- boys talk about Fortnight, he says; girls bear their souls. He allowed Elsie Fisher to guide him in his depiction of eighth-grade living and attitudes, which was an inspired choice. This is a guy who, to me, is himself very young: he's all of 27 years old. But that's still a hell of a lot closer to teen years than I am now, and makes him a better choice for reflecting the lives and challenges of school kids today.
He is more than up to the task and executes it nearly flawlessly. Eighth Grade avoids any pitfall or cliche of typically storytelling you can imagine. Wherever you might think you know where it's going, it never goes that way -- but neither does it have any "twists," per se. It just offers characters who feel genuine and real, and Kayla's semi-desperate lack of confidence is heartbreakingly familiar. Fisher does a fantastic job of giving us a sense that she has great potential to grow into herself.
I did find myself thinking about the number of adults I've known who continue to struggle with the same sorts of awkward anxieties. Some people never quite grow out of it. Lucky for any of us watching Eighth Grade, it seems Kayla is poised to grow out of this problem. Many of us do get lucky on that front. That said, if I had any complaint, I rather wish Burnham had included some indication that Kayla's hurtfully dismissive classmate Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) had her own struggles -- if not exactly the same, then ones that ran parallel. Because who in middle school doesn't?
Still, even though Eighth Grade is relentlessly awkward, it pulls off a rare magic trick in that every scene is also either a delight, a tightrope of tension, or an emotional gut punch. For the great many people poised to relate to this movie in a way they perhaps never have to any other, rooting for Kayla feels like rooting for one's former self. I suppose when it comes to boys, maybe it's different for gay ones like me. Or maybe not? Although Burnham certainly depicts many of the young boys here as having a bit of a one-track mind, any adult regardless of gender or sexuality who is open to a movie like this to begin with is bound to find themselves deeply moved.
This is a movie about a specific time of life that is rarely depicted, bookended between milestones. Kayla, about to finish eighth grade, opens a "time capsule" box filled with things she left for herself at the end of the sixth grade, when she was about to start middle school. By the end of this story, she is assembling a new box for herself to open in four years when she finishes high school. She makes YouTube videos filled with advice she's mostly incapable of taking herself, which virtually no one watches. But then it gets watched by at least one person who matters, and the video she leaves for herself offers a glimpse of her dawning realization of how much she matters.
It's a retroactive comfort to many of our former selves, a kind of reassurance we wish we could travel back in time to give. Eighth Grade isn't going to be for everyone, but to the people it's for, it's near perfection.