I was not prepared for Eighth Grade. Since its rave-rousing Sundance premiere, stand-up comedian turned writer/director Bo Burnham’s debut feature has been gaining buzz as a great coming-of-age tale. I knew my peers thought it was “so good,” and I assumed that meant captivating and fun with occasional streaks of agonizing secondhand embarrassment. Basically, I imagined Lady Bird Jr. But Eighth Grade is not a bittersweet romp. It is not fun. It’s less a movie, and more a cringe-inducing, full-body flashback to the exquisite excruciation of being an adolescent.
Eight Grade follows 13-year-old vlogger Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a deeply introverted middle schooler who works out her insecurities through a series of self-help videos. At school she is ignored by the popular kids and gets the dubious distinction as “Most Quiet” in her eighth-grade class’s graduation superlatives. But online, she exudes confidence, delivering advice about how to take risks, go for your dreams, and make new friends. Still, she has little-to-no views on these vids. And when she tries to act out her own advice, she’s sabotaged by self-doubt and panic. And that panic is contagious, spreading out from the screen and into the theater like a noxious gas.
Forget the Hollywood sheen of teen comedies like Easy A, Can’t Buy Me Love, or The Breakfast Club. This pre-teen comedy centers on a girl who is stuck in that painfully awkward place between childhood and teendom. She has baby fat, pimples, flyaway strands of hair, and an oft-panicked expression. She has an eagerness to be loved and accepted that is so radiant it’s unnerving. Not because Kayla is pathetic or a punch line, but because she is all of us. Burnam never mocks his self-doubting heroine. Instead, he plunges us inside her skin, where we can feel every flash of dizzying excitement, breath-snatching anxiety, and soul-scorching embarrassment.
The comedian known for bringing witty songs into his act deftly uses music to envelop us with Kayla’s state of mind. In one scene, we can’t hear her dad because she’s got pop music blasting in her earbuds. Later, Enya’s “Sail Away” dominates a montage of Kayla’s endless cruising through social media (Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, etc). It’s a dreamy odyssey without destination that is both enrapturing and enraging, inspiring FOMO and a need to post filtered pics that briefly wash away blemishes and insecurities. When Kayla spots her crush, a throbbing electronic jam explodes forth, so loud that this grown-up grimaced. But the point is to be overwhelmed, to feel drowned in this sound that won’t let any thought through. It forces us to focus on the boy with the dark locks and “Best Eyes” in eighth grade. We feel powerless to escape the swells of Anna Meredith’s score, just as Kayla is powerless to escape her hormones and emotions. Our reason fumbles in the face of so much sensational stimuli. We are Kayla.
I pride myself on not walking out of movies. Yet Eighth Grade made me want to run away. It is “so good,” in that Burnham has somehow distilled the humiliation and headiness of adolescence into a story that’s specific, contemporary, and universal. This is why I wanted to flee. As Kayla awkwardly flirts with clunky attempts at conversation, my skin was hot with second-hand embarrassment. As she enters the cool girl’s pool party in her very uncool one-piece swimsuit, my mouth went dry as her anxiety became mine. As she’s frozen in her first awkward sexual encounter, my heart pounded so hard in panic that I felt a desperate need to flee. But I couldn’t take her with me. And I couldn’t leave her.
Fisher’s performance is one of the best this year, in that it doesn’t feel like a performance. She gives us a bracingly authentic portrait of a girl, pimples and all. Kayla’s wrath towards her supportive but bumbling dad (Josh Hamilton) is ugly and brash. Her vulnerability is brazen and harrowing. Her joy in brief reprieves of karaoke and mall-hangs feels like a cooling and much-needed balm to the searing indignities of youth. And because of Burnham’s immersive sound design, these big moods wash over us like an inescapable natural disaster, leaving us survivors who can choose whether to laugh at the storm or curse it. All this makes Eighth Grade not just a great film, but also a traumatizing trip back to a time many adults gladly forget.
It’s a shame that Eighth Grade is rated R. I suspect seeing their struggles on the big screen could help kids grappling with similar issues to see they are not alone.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com