Our introduction to eighth grader Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) comes through the lens of her own laptop camera. “Hey guys, uh, it’s Kayla back with another video,” she stammers before jumping into the topic of her video, “Being Yourself.” The soon-to-be high schooler makes motivational YouTube videos about self-confidence for a self-selecting audience (her father (Josh Hamilton) is her most avid viewer), interspersing each sentence with “likes,” “ums,” and “’cuzes” that would have prompted my own father to count the number of interjections and repeat them back to me. While these traits may not make Kayla a YouTube celebrity, they do, alongside black-rimmed eyeliner and an ever-present cell phone, make her a pretty authentic representation of an eighth grader today. If Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” is the quintessential millennial coming-of-age film, then “Eighth Grade” is its Gen Z counterpart. Bo Burnham’s screenwriting and directorial debut is an honest depiction of what it’s like to navigate some of life’s most awkward years with all the tools needed to compare oneself to others, but little to no power to change one’s situation.
Everything about the world of Kayla Day is equally saturated in nostalgia and modernity. From her chipped, one-coat manicure to her L.L.Bean backpack (with embroidered initials, of course) to her unenthusiastic clashing of cymbals in band, Burnham surrounds his subject with the relatable tropes of adolescence. Watching Kayla pick up her sixth grade time capsule provokes an intense flashback, just as the film itself does to our own youth. When she wins “Most Quiet” for her school’s eighth grade superlatives, I can’t help but remember my own win for “Most Helpful” and the terribly uncomfortable photoshoot that followed. It wasn’t these standard features of middle school that dated the audience for the rated-R movie, but rather those that correlated with the movie’s setting in the 2010s. Kayla is rarely seen without some combination of her cell phone, earphones, and laptop, taking Buzzfeed quizzes and scrolling through social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat. While putting in her earphones and ignoring her father at the dinner table might be a bit hyperbolic, the integration of technology into “Eighth Grade” is impressively realistic. It is most impactful in the form of Kayla’s YouTube videos, which give the movie a narrative and thematic arc beyond the surface plot of following her throughout her last week of the eighth grade.
For all its careful and attentive construction, what really makes Burnham’s debut come to life is the acting, or not-acting, of “Despicable Me” alum Elsie Fisher. Her appeal is in her authenticity. “Eighth Grade” is a departure from the stereotypical coming-of-age film in that Fisher’s portrayal and Burnham’s writing of the character align perfectly with her age. Kayla is not particularly rebellious, edgy, or cynical. She’s not trying to change herself or prove herself by becoming someone else, but instead is trying to be the “The Coolest Girl In The World” (to borrow a phrase from the lid of that time capsule) by way of becoming confident in herself and her own personality. Kayla frequently pretends to distance herself from her father, going out of her way to inform him that he doesn’t need to worry about her anymore. She betrays this shell of aloofness more than once, following her father’s advice when he tells her to “put herself out there” in order to make friends and allowing him to comfort her with outstretched arms in her most difficult moments.
“If I’m being honest, I’m really not, like, the best person to give advice,” Fisher delivers, choking back tears after her attempt to make high school friends results in her rejection of the unwanted sexual advances of a high school senior. Her “no” to him just might be the most confident syllable she speaks in the entire movie. What Kayla can’t realize, but what Fisher and Burnham make so obvious to anyone watching “Eighth Grade,” is that she is the absolute best person to give advice. She may be young and naive, but she’s not jaded. While she may not follow all of her own principles—checking a particular popular girl’s Instagram one-too-many times in obvious self-comparison or letting her crush know she gives “blow jobs” only to rush home and Google what exactly that phrase means—Fisher’s Kayla is nevertheless optimistic. The motivational sticky notes she posts around her mirror assure her that things will get better, and it’s clear that both she and her audience believe them.
—Staff writer Allison J. Scharmann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.