School can be hell, as popular culture is keen to remind us, and perhaps it is never more hellish than when you are at that awkward age – not a child, not quite a teenager, and trapped for a year in some liminal space in-between. Bo Burnham’s excellent comic drama Eighth Grade captures one such student in her final week of middle school.
Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is a shy 13 year-old who struggles to find friends at school, but who perversely records self-help videos onto YouTube. At war with her “cool” Dad (Josh Hamilton), and forced to attend the birthday of a classmate that doesn’t even like her, Kayla works to connect with her peers in the last week they will be in middle school together.
What is remarkable about Eighth Grade is its clear but modest ambitions. This is not a melodrama; there is no overraught incident or scandal to drive the plot. There is no climactic and heartfelt speech to warm the audience’s heart. There is not even a real battle for Kayla to fight and win, and no emotional victory for her to “earn”. There are small versions of all of these things, of course, but that seems to be writer/director Bo Burnham’s point. Life is not big decisions and impassionated acts of growth or rebellion. It is small domestic interations: a jumbled rant at a school bully, a slammed door and a sulk when your father’s awkward affection embarrasses you, and tiny wins when you make a new friend or have a particularly great day.
This all makes Eighth Grade feel rather remarkable. It takes a solid half hour of watching the film before it becomes apparent there is not going to a deeply traumatic incident – no high school shooting, unplanned pregancies, or violent assaults. When the film does hit what one might call a “me too” moment, it rings with a troubling authenticity. It feels realistic, and deeply threatening and invasive, because Burnham has carefully establishing a more mundane emotional level for his film.
Authentic performances by an age-appropriate cast do wonders for the film. Elsie Fisher is positively superb as Kayla, and for anybody who can remember being her age it is a performance packed with tiny moments of pain and embarrassment – and thankfully equivalent moments of satisfaction and joy. Josh Hamilton is also perfectly familiar as a single father struggling to love his temperamental daughter without having her lash out at him.
It takes genuine talent to write and direct a film with this sort of deliberately pared-down tone and content. Alfred Hitchcock allegedly claimed “drama is life with the dull bits cut out”; Eighth Grade instead makes the dull bits interesting. It is a surprising film – and a wonderful one.