This is one of the rare times in writing about movies that I’m not concerned about spoiling something for readers. In fact, I want to purposefully spoil a plot element in the coming-of-age dramedy Eighth Grade, so it acts as a trigger warning for anyone who reads this before they see it.
There’s a scene late in the movie when our hero, the introverted, socially awkward eighth grader Kayla Day, ends up alone in a car with a high-school senior named Riley. The scene just before this one shows a personal peak for Kayla. Another senior named Olivia acts as Kayla’s ambassador in a program that allows junior-high kids to shadow high-school students for a day, so they can see what life will be like next year. Olivia is kind to Kayla. She encourages the younger student, telling her what a great time she will have in high-school. Olivia even gets Kayla an early start on the fun when she invites Kayla to hang out at the mall with some friends, one of whom is Riley.
Riley is giving both Olivia and Kayla a ride home afterwards, and he tells Olivia he’ll drop her off first. The instant he tells Olivia that this plan makes more sense, because they’re closer to her house, every woman in my audience voiced a disconcerted groan. The quiet gasps and uneasy exclamations – almost solely from the women in the crowd – grew in intensity as Riley pulled the car over and got in the back seat so he and Kayla could play a game of truth or dare.
This scene, the dread it creates in the audience as we anticipate what Riley will or won’t do, affected me in a profound way. My stomach was clenched as I tried to will Kayla out of the situation. My partner, Rachel, whispered to me that she might need to excuse herself to the bathroom, in case she needed to vomit.
Because I’m a man (and a straight, cis-gendered, white one, at that), and because Eighth Grade focuses on an adolescent girl, the best thing I can do is listen to someone whose lived experience is closer to the protagonist than my own. I can’t do that with every movie I review, but when I can, I should. On the car ride home, Rachel wondered if the scene above would have felt quite as distressing if a woman had written and directed Eighth Grade instead of a man; this is stand-up comedian Bo Burnham’s feature film debut as a writer and director.
Not that it should feel less distressing, mind you. The sickening tone that Burnham achieves with this sequence successfully captures what millions of women have described as happening in their own lives. Rachel’s point was that if a woman was at the helm here, the audience (especially the women) wouldn’t have felt as helplessly blindsided by it as we did. A female director might have taken more care to portray the reality of that moment without potentially triggering very real psychological damage in a large proportion of the audience who have suffered through an event like this.
The fact that a man wrote and directed a young girl’s story was my biggest concern going into Eighth Grade. It’s great that Burnham decided to shift his focus from the norm for mainstream movies, which is overwhelmingly male. That was my biggest criticism of Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age story, Boyhood, a film I otherwise admire. That movie shares some similarities to Eighth Grade. So, kudos to Burnham for the effort, but let’s dig deeper. Why don’t studios give more opportunities (read: money) to actual female writers and directors so that they have a chance to tell their own stories? That way, they aren’t filtered through a male lens.
That call to action aside, Eighth Grade does deserve to be judged on its own merits. Burnham has made a touching, heartfelt film. Despite the harrowing scene I described above, and Kayla’s brave reaction in its aftermath, the movie is generally a comedic look at what growing up in the age of social media and internet culture is like. Here, too, I’m way out of my depth. The internet was just beginning to be a thing in my own last year of high-school. Facebook and Instagram were still years away when I started college. I have no frame of reference to Kayla, who tells someone she first downloaded Snapchat when she was in fifth grade.
Still, Kayla’s story is universally relatable. It doesn’t matter how advanced the technology she uses is. Teachers are still hopelessly dorky – one teacher doing “the dab,” and the band director’s foot-long rattail hairstyle are highlights – parents are still clueless and figuring out who you are is still the quintessential journey.
There is no horrendous cyber-bullying in Eighth Grade. Kayla’s chief use of the internet is to produce her YouTube videos. They’re self-help styled missives about being yourself and practicing confidence in social situations. Oh, and lurking on her crush’s Instagram account. The internet is for that, too.
Kayla tries to practice what she preaches, even though the girl who wins “most quiet” from her peers isn’t nearly as exuberant as she is in her videos. She has a hard-won victory when she overcomes her anxiety to perform a karaoke song in front of her classmates at a birthday party. In a clever move, Burnham covers up Kayla’s singing in this moment with a soring pop song that mirrors her emotional triumph. The drowning out of her performance also hints at how these moments work. It’s a huge instance of personal growth for Kayla, one that might change who she becomes in the future. No one around her particularly notices, though, and years from now Kayla herself will probably struggle to remember what song she performed.
The bright, shining star at the center of Eighth Grade is Elsie Fisher as Kayla. She is a revelation. We all wear different masks in our daily lives depending on with whom we’re interacting, and Fisher shows Kayla changing these masks with expert skill. We see confident Kayla, shy Kayla, anxiety-attack Kayla, exuberant Kayla. Fisher is in almost every shot of the picture, and she carries that weight like an acting veteran, not a 15-year-old newcomer.
Eighth Grade is a perfect example of Roger Ebert’s theory of movies as empathy machines. It’s a way to experience the world – even if for just 90 minutes – through someone else’s eyes. Kayla Day encourages us to extend the best parts of our nature to everyone around us. That’s the first step in making the world a better place.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Burnham has crafted a beautiful, quietly touching little film in his first directing effort. Elsie Fisher is phenomenal. Kayla's spirit radiates from the screen.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- A month ago I wrote about the film First Reformed and its use of slow cinema to produce a serious, ominous mood. Burnham uses the same techniques to brilliant comedic effect. His slow zoom out as Kayla and her fellow band classmates perform a painful rendition of The Star Spangled Banner is inspired.
- It was kind of nice to see what struck me as a love letter to the internet. It's not all cyber-bullying, afterall. Kayla's relationship to the internet might be a bit unhealthy, but sometimes it's nice to get lost scrolling through social media, and the movie reflects that.
- It's not a new observation, but Burnham hammers home the banality of school shootings in one scene, and the gallows humor that the kids adopt to deal with it.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- You would never think that it would be essential to see a small, indie dramedy like Eighth Grade in a theater with an audience, but it really is. There was a palpable charge in the room during the scene in the car.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Next week I'll be looking at the new documentary Three Identical Strangers. It tells the tale of triplets separated at birth who found each other by chance after two decades.