Among the slate of much-anticipated Sundance films now finding wider audience distribution is Bo Burnham’s heartfelt coming-of-age movie, Eighth Grade. The film follows thirteen-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) through the highs and lows of the final week of her disastrous eighth grade year. Kayla runs an unsuccessful YouTube channel where she gives advice on topics such as “being yourself” or “putting yourself out there,” meanwhile barely speaking to any of her classmates. She’s desperate for attention, desperate to be cool and popular and well-liked, but is voted her class’s “most quiet” student and remains riddled with self-consciousness and anxiety. She’s a mess of contradictions, and an easily identifiable reflection of so many of us during our most awkward and embarrassing middle school years.
What surprised me most about Eighth Grade was how true-to-life it felt in depicting the experience of being a thirteen-year-old girl, especially considering the irreverent comedy of Bo Burnham, who both wrote and directed the film. At some points, the movie became difficult to watch because it reminded me so strongly of my own experiences at that age. For nearly every beat that the movie hit, I could recall something similar occurring during my own time in middle school. Perhaps parts of the experience Burnham captured are universal, but the movie is so funneled through Kayla’s perspective that it would be an entirely different movie had the main character been a boy. The moments don’t feel universal; they feel intimately personal and individual.
The film is channeled so effectively through Kayla, in fact, that it’s a deeply internal movie—even when Kayla is surrounded by other people, the story is still all about her and her feelings. Still, Elsie Fisher is surrounded by a sparkling cast: Josh Hamilton plays Kayla’s goofy but well-meaning single father, Mark; Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), Aiden (Luke Prael), and Steph (Nora Mullins) are the mean popular kids Kayla is desperate to befriend and emulate despite their unkindness toward her; Emily Robinson shines as Olivia, the cool high school girl Kayla wants to become someday; and Jake Ryan endears as Gabe, fellow awkward nerd with whom Kayla starts to develop a crush-like friendship.
The directing drives home the singular perspective—Kayla’s YouTube advice videos act as voiceovers to scenes in which she either takes or directly contradicts her own advice. The popular kids are framed as beautiful and inaccessible celebrities in bright colors and pan-up/pan-down full-body shots. The high school kids become cool and aspirational ideals, mostly watched from afar but still simply observed while up-close. Kayla’s father seems a nuisance unable to ever properly understand her, his voice either cutting off or fighting to be heard over her upbeat pop music as he tries to simply ask her about her day or boost her self-confidence.
Eighth Grade reminded me a little bit of another award-season coming-of-age favorite: Lady Bird from writer and director Greta Gerwig. Both films featured unique, lovable, relatable teenage protagonists; I could see Kayla growing up to become something of a Lady Bird in her future, though perhaps that was because I myself went from an awkward, shy Kayla in middle school to a rebellious, anxious-to-be-set-free Lady Bird by the end of high school. Both films also rely on their chronological settings to shape the experiences of the girls whose stories they tell: Lady Bird’s story takes place in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and on the advent of the technological boom, which define her experiences both with her friendships and with leaving home. Kayla’s story is contemporary, but it is rooted in the fact that she is a teenager growing up in the age of social media, which has a massive effect on how she sees herself and also how she’s able to present herself to others.
What’s most similar about Eighth Grade and Lady Bird, though, is the way in which each fully dives into its protagonist’s point-of-view and focuses on the things that real teenage girls do, say, and think about—not boys and makeup, at least not all the time, but also navigating friendships, appearing cool, discovering sex, and trying to gain a sense of independence while maintaining a relationship with their parents. In both films, even the smallest incidents take on a massive meaning when channeled through their protagonists’ teen perspectives—effectively capturing the monumentality with which everything is interpreted by teenagers, and grounding each movie in a relatable reality.
This is an outstanding writing and directorial debut for Burnham, who it seems is just at the beginning of a career as a filmmaker. If this movie is anything to go by, then I eagerly await his future work. In this movie, Burnham effectively translates the rich internal life of a teenage girl in a way many movies try to and very few movies actually achieve.