Middle school is hell.
It’s a transition period, one fraught with hormonal mood swings and changing bodies. The three years between elementary school and high school are tough, uncomfortable, and often repressed. Eighth grade is even worse. Preparing for the chaos of high school is nothing less than terrifying. It’s a year that everyone wants to forget. But Bo Burnham’s new film, aptly titled “Eighth Grade,” pulls you back into the hellscape in a heartfelt and surprising way.
“Eighth Grade” stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla, a socially withdrawn 13-year-old navigating her final week in eighth grade. Her main way of expressing herself is through a vlog, where she expounds life advice, signing off every video by saying, “Gucci!”
The film is wrought with pain, mostly on the audience’s side. Nearly every interaction with someone is incredibly awkward for Kayla, let it be trying to start a conversation with the two popular girls in school, who only respond with “yeah” and “okay” without looking up from their phones, or explaining to a boy she has a crush on why she is sitting in a room alone while everyone else is singing karaoke in the next room. But beyond this surface level pain is a deeper anguish.
Kayla’s awkwardness is not just due to her own self-esteem issues but from how withdrawn she is from the world. No one really seems to be her friend, and every interaction with someone is a desperate plea for someone to pull her out of her loneliness. Her strained relationship with her father and self-image issues make this a surprisingly heavy film.
The emotional weight behind the film is unassuming as very few people can truly relate to this story. “Eighth Grade” is cemented in the present day, and explores our relationship with technology as much as it does with growing up. Kayla is constantly on her phone, scrolling through Twitter and Instagram or just using it as a way to ignore her single father. This technology infused adolescence feels foreign in memory, but paints an accurate portrait of today’s youth.
What makes this movie work so well is that while the characters themselves aren’t necessarily that relatable, their experiences are. Everyday social awkwardness, beauty standards and sexual tension are all issues that most people have experienced. Beyond that, “Eighth Grade” explores human relationships through Kayla’s naive eyes. Fighting with your parents, the first time hanging with a new friend, trying to impress a potential romantic partner — each interaction doesn’t feel like a childish romp through adult themes but instead an outside examination of how we connect with each other, with all of the discomfort and beauty woven within.
“Eighth Grade” is almost like a prequel to “Lady Bird.” The stand-out coming-of-age story released last year, also via A24 Films, follows a girl through her last year of high school before moving away for college. Like “Eighth Grade,” “Lady Bird” doesn’t really follow a linear plot, but instead excels at making the audience reminisce and connect to the titular character.
So rarely does a film about kids actually show how kids live. Instead of exploring the complexity of childhood and growing up, most films tie themselves up with child protagonists going on an adventure or fighting some sort of evil. “Eighth Grade” doesn’t bother itself with a convoluted storyline; instead, it focuses on a difficult week in a young girl’s life, something every 13-year-old to 30-year-old can relate to.