Photo: Courtesy of Sundance
When we meet 13-year-old Kayla Day, she’s particularly hung up on a single descriptor: talkative. In a YouTube video she posts for her single-digit subscriber base, she insists that even though people at school see her as shy and quiet, she is in fact, totally talkative. She uses the word as if it’s an objective, hereditary trait, like “tall” or “Canadian.” The idea of it as a virtue feels exactly in line with the kind of thing one can become consumed by when you’re in the heady work of building your personality, without even really knowing what it means or what its implications are. So, of course, when the eighth-grade class superlatives are announced and Kayla is named “Quietest,” it’s a blow.
With Eighth Grade, his directorial debut, comedian Bo Burnham has tapped into a byproduct of social-media-saturated adolescence that’s often overlooked in favor of parental panic and worst-case-scenario horror stories. In Kayla’s world, there is a premium on always having something to say. Her eyeballs are hooked to a steady IV drip of her classmates’ snaps and celebrity YouTube videos — everyone has something to share or teach or perform. No wonder she thinks the best way to make her mark is through a YouTube channel, where she, in all her infinite eighth-grade wisdom, offers advice on such YouTube-worthy banalities as “being yourself” and “gaining confidence.” (Sample advice: “The hard part about being yourself is that it’s not easy.”)
The film unfolds over Kayla’s last week of the titular school year, and the landmark of leaving middle school — and childhood, in a way — starts weighing on her. She’s the only child of a single father (played with so much heart by Josh Hamilton), and when no one’s watching, she’s clearly overflowing with creativity and curiosity that fails to impress the popular girls at school. As she prepares to enter the big, scary world of high school, she finds she is none of the things she wants to be, and the ways in which she takes shaky, untrained stabs at becoming that person provide much of the of the film’s gently uproarious, all-too-real humor. Like a non-sociopathic Todd Solondz, Burnham affectionately revels in his heroine’s sometimes halting, sometimes spasmodically overzealous search for herself. Awkward is the key word here, but it’s as far from the hashtag-y, one-dimensionality that the term usually denotes among Kayla’s cohort.
Burnham’s direction is patient and endlessly empathetic; it’s an out-of-the-gate confidence that is as pleasantly surprising as fellow comedian turned auteur Jordan Peele’s. It’s excellently complemented by the excitable electronic score composed by Anna Meredith, which lends a pulsating thump to Kayla’s doofy, dreamy-eyed crush, and a shakily hopeful buzz to the chaos of a middle-school hallway. The few soundtrack cues are insightful and hilarious, particularly a montage of one of Kayla’s nighttime social-media rabbit holes scored to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” This is the directorial work of someone well acquainted with late-night, hollow-eyed, glowing screen mania.
But as far as revelatory debuts, it’s rivaled by that of Elsie Fisher, who embodies Kayla’s anxiety and yearning with an almost spooky self-awareness. A 14-year-old should not be this aware of what 13-year-olds are like, but every twitch of her mouth, every hopelessly misguided attempt to fit in feels vérité in its accuracy. But Fisher is clearly an actress, and an actress who is very good at her job. During an encounter with an older boy that goes from cringey and hilarious to deeply upsetting, we see Kayla, a girl who is often moody and taciturn but ultimately optimistic that other people will be good and kind to her eventually, discover that that is not always the case. Watching her fold into herself is heartbreaking.
Luckily, she doesn’t stay folded for long, and the film ends as it begins with a self-recorded video. It’s a letter to her future self, but of course, all of them have been all along. Eighth Grade is cognizant of all the new scary realities of growing up with an internet-connected camera on your person at all times, but it also finds hope in it, as, if nothing else, a tool for self-discovery.