Eighth Grade, written and directed by Bo Burnham, is perhaps one of the most realistic, genuine and moving explorations if what it is REALLY like to be a shy, introverted teenager who’s trying to find their place and who they are as a person in the big, unfair, scary world of not only reality, but social media. I related and connected to this film in so many ways, and I also was given a glimpse into what life is actually like for so many young teenage girls today. I’m so excited to talk about and explore not only this fantastic film, but also the brilliance of Bo Burnham, so let’s get on with it.
The introverted, lonely, Kayla Day – played by Elsie Fisher – is in the final week of eighth grade and for her, it’s been a bit of a disaster. We get an unflinchingly honest exploration into the struggles of a young teenage girl in a way that doesn’t ever seem to have been properly portrayed on-screen and it’s both emotionally difficult and endearing.
At this point in my extensive history with cinema, I’ve seen plenty of coming of age stories where the awkward high school student struggles to find her place in either school or her personal life, or any manner of (supposed) relatable scenarios. For the most part, I don’t really enjoy my time with most of these films. There’s a lack of realism (despite them touting a realistic style and approach to teenage life) or a genuineness that’s emotionally effective. So, walking into Eighth Grade – despite it being written and directed by Bo Burnham (a poet and comedian who I absolutely adore) – I was still wary of the experience I was about to settle in to.
I’m happy (and I’ll admit, a little relieved) to say that Eighth Grade is absolutely an achievement at what it sets out to do and say, and is undoubtedly one of the most believably genuine explorations of teenage life – more specifically teenage life for young girls.
There are a lot of factors that go into making this film feel as genuine as it is and one of the ones that stood out immediately to me was the dialogue. Kayla talks like a teenage girl. The dialogue isn’t snappy and as if it came from the mind of a writer trying to imagine what it’s like to be a young person today. It sounds so natural, as if it really is Kayla’s words, and rather than Kayla sounding like the teenage equivalent of an Arron Sorkin character where she cuts the bullies down with her perfectly choreographed set of words or knows the exact right thing to say to sound like the smartest person in the room; Kayla is instead like any other awkward teen who in the moment fumbles over every word and bookends most of her sentences with the word ‘like’.
It really does seem like there was an honest collaboration between Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher (and the other young talent in the film) to find the voice of Kayla and to also find the voice of young people today. For anyone who has spent even the slightest amount of time on YouTube, then you know the rhythm and structure of how young people speak, and within Eighth Grade is one of the most authentically convincing deliveries of that.
What else played a factor in creating such a genuine and believable experience was from a plot standpoint and from a structural standpoint, Eighth Grade doesn’t rely on the tiered, repetitive set of events that seem to occur in so many films similar to this one. To some extent, those elements do exist, but not to a level where they drive the film and become its focus. Rather they exist because in one way or another they are constants in nearly every young person’s life, but in Eighth Grade they’re handled in a far more grounded and realistic way. This isn’t a film with a triumphant win at the end, the bully doesn’t end up covered in slime and Kayla doesn’t find the man of her dreams.
By the end of this film, Kayla hasn’t solved all her insecurities and discovered who she’ll go onto be for the rest of her life. She still has so much left to figure out, but the hurdles she has overcome and the revelations about herself that’s she’s discovered are fulfilling steps to share in, and an arc that has your experience with the film feeling far more meaningful.
Because that’s something Eighth Grade will really make you think about: who you are as a person and what steps you can make to hopefully have a healthier attitude for both yourself and the people around you. It’s really quite magical and sweet what Burnham has achieved with this film, and while some of the revelations it unearthed about me had me welling up and a little down on the aspects I could better in myself, it still meant so much that the film was able to affect me in such a way. There are no recent examples of films I can think of that are similar in intent like Eighth Grade, that have had anywhere near the impact that this film did.
And the aspect that I think brings all these other elements together and helps make sure they all work as effectively as they do is the casting of Elsie Fisher. She makes the character who she is. She embodies and projects the struggle that effect Kayla on a daily basis. She holds within her the big, ever-giving heart that endears you and connects you to her. And, her collaboration with Burnham clearly helped to fully flesh out Kayla in a way that made her such a richly engaging character to share a journey with.
A journey that is full of both hearty laughs and heart-wrenching moments. What’s a real success and testament of Bo’s work is how well he balances such a diverse tone. There are plenty of times where Eighth Grade had me joyously laughing along with the crowd around me, and at other times it had me overwhelmed with emotions that touched me on a deeply personal level and had me holding back some tears. It’s no easy journey for Kayla (as is the case for so many kids) but I think the exploration of all aspects of life, whether it be with a good chuckle or a good cry, you’re continually engaged and entertained, while also having a good look at yourself and who you are or who you’ve been, through the story of Kayla.
Ultimately what feels so meaningful about Eighth Grade is how it looks at young people and treats them. This isn’t a film that looks down on them. This isn’t a situation where the writer is looking back on their time in school and thinking less of the people around them and how stupid or cruel kids can be, nor is it a nostalgic where the main character happens to listen to all the same music and have the same taste as the writer who grew up in the 80’s/90’s. This is heartfelt and genuine look at the youth of today and it’s a canvas full of themes and emotions that not only young people can look at and find something that speaks to them, but it contains something we all in someway can look at and see a little of ourselves in. With Eighth Grade, you’re both treated to a wonderful little film with much to say and very effective ways of saying it, and you’re also given the opportunity for a little self-reflection and possible growth, which isn’t something often gifted to you by a lot of films.
I’m absolutely going to recommend, Eighth Grade. It’s an experience full of emotions and all of them add up to something I found to be wholly moving and so worth exploring more of. When this film comes around your way, make sure to give it a watch and allow yourself to think a little bit about the person you are and maybe who you want to be going forward.
Hey, if you liked what you read, then may I suggest checking out my movie podcast, ‘The Meandering Movie Podcast. It’s currently available on iTunes (https://apple.co/2FUkAhU) Soundcloud (https://bit.ly/2S4sMm6) and Castbox (https://bit.ly/2N7Z6zA). You can find out more about it by heading over to Twitter – @MeanderingPod. I want to close things out with a simple but heartfelt thanks, because it means so much to me that you stopped by and gave my silly ramblings a chance. Thank you and I hope you liked what you read enough to consider returning. Have a wonderful day.