Eighth Grade is a teen coming-of-age movie that escapes many of the rote coming-of-age movie tropes so often associated with them. It does everything in such an understated, nuanced way, where the viewer feels as if they’re a bystander in protagonist Kayla’s life. It’s the first film I have seen in a very long time that truly understands what social anxiety is. It’s also centered around what is nothing short of a star-making performance for newcomer Elsie Fisher.
Kayla is a 13-year-old girl awkwardly navigating her last week of middle school. She’s raised by a single father who is struggling to connect with her. She suffers from an almost debilitating social anxiety, heightened by the hyperactive nature of social media. Like many teenagers, Kayla’s whole life takes place on her cell phone, and she so desperately wants to break free and connect with others but is terrified to. Kayla also makes little-seen YouTube videos where she doles out advice on how to be confident and outgoing when it’s clearly all advice she needs for herself.
First-time writer/director Bo Burnham insightfully writes a fully dimensional teenage girl in a way that doesn’t feel condescending or trite. He understands how teens these days interact, or how they don’t. Kayla wants in every way to connect – to be seen by others. She’s an extrovert trapped in the body of someone with crippling social anxiety. She wants nothing more than to have the group of friends and the boyfriend who makes her feel good about herself. And her self-help YouTube videos suggest that she knows how to do this, but is utterly petrified to make the first step.
And that is exactly what social anxiety is. This film captures in such a deft way what social anxiety feels like. Kayla walks around aimlessly, wondering if the rest of the world knows something she doesn’t. More often than not, an anxious person just wants to be capable of normal interactions with others. In a scene involving a pool party she reluctantly attends, Kayla has a panic attack. The way Burnham crafts this scene is nothing short of devastating. In the opening shot of this film alone, your heart breaks for Kayla. You want to tell her that life gets better, but then you wonder if it really does.
As much as Burnham’s clever script and direction can be praised, the film really belongs to star Elsie Fisher. She’s not taking notes from her peers. She’s making something that is completely her own, and she’s a thrill to watch. In a scene where she confronts someone, she’s saying what she’s held in for a long time, but she doesn’t make eye contact. You know this is a speech she’s rehearsed, and it gives her tremendous joy to deliver it, but under it all, she’s still kind of scared. Fisher is great, and I think this is the start of a remarkable career. I look forward to what she does next.
In conclusion, Burnham deftly captures the adolescent feeling of small moments feeling like the end of the world. It’s similar to last year’s excellent Ingrid Goes West, in the way it discusses the mental repercussions of social media and the depression that can come from it. Eighth Grade is definitely Fisher’s movie, but also has a particularly nice performance by Josh Hamilton, as Kayla’s father. The film is rated R, which is ridiculous. I definitely think it’s important this film is seen by young teens. Not only will it give teens and parents something to talk about, but it will give struggling youth a strong case for their future. It’s harrowing and difficult to watch at times but ends on a thoroughly uplifting note. It’s small, lovely and touching, and one of the better films this year.