Watching Bo Burnham’s debut feature, Eighth Grade, you might realize more vividly than ever what all great teenage coming-of-age stories have in common: unbearable levels of anxiety. The movie chronicles the last week of middle school for a 13-year-old girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher), and — spoiler alert — not a huge amount happens, and everything that does feels momentous.
In the opening scene, Kayla addresses the camera, talking not to the movie audience but the peers she hopes are watching her latest YouTube video (though her views, alas, are in the low single digits). Kayla talks desperately fast, as if to keep people from turning her off, glancing down from time to time at a paper, saying “like” a lot, wanting everyone to know that although people think she’s quiet, she’s really “funny and cool and talkative” and that the message she wants to share is how important it is not to “change yourself to impress someone else.” She signs off with a brand name — “Gucci!” — and then shuts down the camera, wilting, eaten up by loneliness. Later, Kayla says that life is about “putting yourself out there — but where is ‘there’?”
Where is “there”? is the existential question both of her age and the age, and Eighth Grade does it justice. Those YouTube videos are pipelines to Kayla’s soul. And Burnham has another brilliant device for evoking her dislocation: a box that she buried at the end of sixth grade containing memorabilia, as well as a SpongeBob flash drive with a video message to her end-of-eighth-grade self. The cover of the box reads, “To the coolest girl in the world,” but the Kayla who called herself that isn’t the Kayla who’s reading those words now and radiating awkwardness.
Burnham made his name as a stand-up comedian, and if you can manage to look at Eighth Grade objectively — which isn’t easy, given the wallop it packs — you’ll see that it’s pretty slick. He knows the value of sensation, of blasting music (some, a synthesized organ, by the intense Scottish composer-performer Anna Meredith) when Kayla puts on headphones, floating the camera at water level when she dives into a pool, and using lyrical slow-motion when the long-waisted boy (Luke Prael) whom Kayla adores strides by. But the slickness is dispelled whenever Elsie Fisher is onscreen, which is practically always.
Fisher gives the impression of a girl who has been thrown into the middle of a movie without a script and forced to improvise — to figure out how to put herself “out there” — in every scene, clinging to words like “yeah” and “cool” and “awesome” while tremulously attempting to keep her head above the surface. She barely speaks at all in one of the film’s most breath-catching sequences, in which Kayla is invited to the mall by an effusive high-school student, Olivia (Emily Robinson), whom she “shadowed” in classes earlier that day. Amid a posse of Olivia’s friends, Kayla mostly sits and listens, out of her depth but thrillingly included, amazed by the worldliness of these late teens, whom she calls “cool” and “awesome” and who call her “cool” back. You can’t take your eyes off Fisher’s Kayla — but you also want to see what she sees at the same exact instant. That scene is followed by one in which she’s alone in a car with a boy (Daniel Zolghadri) who stops and slides in next to her in the backseat and gently pressures her into a game of Truth or Dare. Fisher freezes and stares down at her lap and says “Okay” to herself, as if trying to catch her breath, and the word comes out “Oh-kee” — two of the most packed syllables I’ve heard in a movie.
The emotions are pitched nearly as high in Kayla’s scenes with her single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who continually tries to engage her and is continually rebuffed, either verbally or with the use of headphones to keep him out. Over a torturous dinner, he says, “One more week of eighth grade. Crazy, huh?” Beat. “Yeah.” “You excited?” Beat. “Yes.” As the father of two girls (one close to Kayla’s age), I have a hard time imagining how Mark could be any more loving and accessible. But the point, of course, is that it doesn’t really matter how he is but how she is, which is unable to converse on cue while in a heightened state of eighth-grader-ness. A dad must not take it personally while also taking it to heart. The relationship is so fraught that Burnham is able to push a wheezy farcical standby — the parent walking in on a daughter practicing fellatio on a banana — to new heights with added context: He’s surprised when she claims to be eating that banana because she has previously bitten off his head for not remembering her violent aversion to bananas — and therefore being insufficiently attuned to her needs and wants.
It might be argued that Burnham cheats by stripping away every imaginable source of comfort for Kayla. She doesn’t have close friends. She doesn’t have siblings. Her mother’s non-presence isn’t addressed until late in the film and even then is given short shrift. Will mothers be upset that this is a father-daughter movie exclusively? I’d be, in their shoes. (And since Mark is such a cutie, why does it seem as if he hasn’t been with anyone in years — as if he’s in a vacuum, too?)
Burnham doesn’t do much to make the eighth grade’s lazily contemptuous popular girls more than caricatures, but the high-school kids are wittily delineated, and Robinson’s Olivia is a wonderful creation, her people-pleasing energy so high that she bounces all over the screen. (Is Olivia for real? The beauty of it is that she is.) As Gabe, the nerdlet who’s instantly enamored of Kayla, Jake Ryan has a magical combination of cluelessness and would-be sophistication that I recognize with horror from my own middle-school years. Their date scene is an original — these kids are so pickled in their own self-consciousness that they keep a running tab on how they’re doing with each other. Another, less happy original: a scene in which the eighth grade — assisted by the drama club and some garish makeup — rehearses a school shooting with casualties. What was once inconceivable is now a familiar part of these kids’ mental landscape. They act as if it’s no biggie.
In an appearance with the cast and director after the recent bamcinemaFest screening, Josh Hamilton pointed out that everyone — even aging dads — will identify with Kayla’s struggle for acceptance, quoting Jules Feiffer’s contention “Maturity is a phase. Adolescence is forever.” But adolescence with social media? That’s a new level of anxiety. Poor Kayla feels crazy pressure to make YouTube videos while telling other adolescents — and herself, implicitly — not to feel so much pressure, and to put herself out there with no there there. If there’s a more haunting portrait of what it’s like to grow up now, I’m not sure I could take it.
*This article appears in the July 9, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!