Eighth Grade is both a stunning achievement in cinematic veracity and maybe not the best watch for anyone who’s spent their adult life trying to forget middle school. It’s so traumatic and awkward and embarrassing that there were times I wanted to retreat back inside my own body. Really make a couch fort out of repressed memories in there and never come out. Success?
Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, an eighth-grader on the cusp of graduation being raised by her single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), another in a long line of well-meaning single dads raising girls in teen movies, from Pretty In Pink to Not Another Teen Movie. He isn’t an alcoholic or unemployed or a coal miner this time around, just a loving upper-middle-class white dude in cargo shorts who has fatalistically accepted his lot as the Guy Who Will Embarrass His Daughter no matter what he does.
Of course, Mark doesn’t need to drink too much or be poor or dirty to embarrass his daughter, because this is more of a tween movie than a teen movie, and at that age the mere existence of parents is sufficient to cause embarrassment. Kayla makes vlogs in her bedroom, self-help advice on make-up or self-confidence or “putting yourself out there,” and very quickly we come to realize that it’s really herself she’s trying to reach. Her YouTube videos are essentially the staircase wisdom of someone desperately wishing life came with do-overs.
A lot of performances get called “brave,” and it’s usually just an ironic way to praise someone who spent the past six months eating free food while someone else combed their hair, but Elsie Fisher’s is the rare case where it couldn’t be more true. I know she’s acting (it’s a credit to her performance that you can so easily forget), but I can think of few things braver than willingly committing the most awkward slice of your adolescence to film forever. And Fisher leans hard into Kayla’s foibles — her fumbling speech, her naive but intense earnestness, her forays into adult styling, her barely understood horniness and disastrous attractions. She’s mastered her own persona here better than most adults could ever dream of. Meanwhile, Burnham wields the camera like a dagger, and even well into my thirties there were times I thought “Too soon!”
There’s no shortage of things Burnham does right here, but probably the most impressive is the most obvious — he’s made a movie about eighth graders who feel like real eighth graders. Anyone who has ever worked with child actors, or met child actors, or seen a film or television show starring child actors, understands how hard that is. But the cast of Eighth Grade is universally solid, from Fisher on down, achieving an almost painful realism.
Burnham manages a delicate balancing act, giving Kayla an arc, of sorts, both hitting the notes we expect (demand?) of a teen movie — love interest, bully trouble, social inferiority complex, awkward sexual encounter, etc. — while neither overdoing plot and Big Drama to the point that it becomes an after-school special, nor underdoing it to the point that it feels meandering or pointless. This is neither a John Hughes knockoff nor stereotypical Sundance navel-gazing and it effectively keeps us guessing. Uncertainty, after all, is the overwhelming emotion of adolescence.
As you may have already gleaned by now, Eighth Grade‘s biggest drawback is the sheer authenticity of its awkwardness. We’ve certainly overvalued awkward characters in pop culture of late, probably to our own detriment, but that’s more a criticism of Ready Player One or Big Bang Theory than Eighth Grade, in which the awkwardness is depicted as transitional, the hallmark of a character not yet formed, rather than a permanent personality trait to be celebrated or sent up. Still, the thing about awkward people is that they can be tough to be around.
People who know Burnham from his previous incarnation as a precocious YouTube comedian (one I remember loving but haven’t seen in 10 years) might be surprised that Eighth Grade isn’t a straight-up comedy. Though I probably laughed harder than if it had been one. Like life, you never know whether Burnham is going to try to make you laugh, cry, or cringe. You can sense Burnham’s stand-up skills, though, just not in a setup/punchline kind of way. You sense it in his timing, in the expert way he builds tension and layers awkwardness right up to the point where it’s almost unbearable and then shatters it with a sharp laugh-line.
Likewise, music was always a big part of Burnham’s act and the same is true of Eighth Grade, which arguably squeezes as much comedy out of the musical cues as any of the characters. There’s more than a little Election in Eighth Grade, a distinct parallel between Tracy Flick’s “crazy” music and Kayla’s Dreamweaver-esque electronica-scored slow-motion daydreams about her crush on her classmate Aiden, a squinty proto-Luke Perry obsessed with nude pics played by Luke Prael. Prael is perfect, both in terms of casting and character, a tweenage James Franco asking Kayla about selfies and BJs, deadpanning lines like “I’d f*ck him up.” I love a good teen delinquent, with fuzzy upper lip and thousand-yard stare.
That edge is what makes Eighth Grade more than your average coming-of-age Sundance dramedy (it was nominated for an audience award at Sundance and won Best Narrative Feature at the San Francisco Film Festival). Burnham plumbs these teens for pathos, sure, but he’s also not afraid to go a little scat where the situation requires. Middle schoolers, after all, are nothing if not un-PC.
All in all, Eighth Grade is a thoroughly impressive debut for Burnham, and about the worst thing you can say about it is that it might evoke memories of junior high a too well.