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“Thanks for watching. Gucci.”
It’s the last week of eighth grade for Kayla May (Elsie Fisher), a shy teen who dreams of attaining the confidence that seems just out of reach. In her spare time she films and uploads motivational videos for her YouTube channel. She’s talkative on screen but at school she says very little and has no real friends. She lives with her dad (Josh Hamilton), and Kayla, like many kids her age, is overly concerned with how her dad’s behavior affects her social standing. We follow Kayla over the span of one week as she gets voted most shy, examines the contents of her 6th grade time capsule, gets invited to a popular kid’s birthday pool party, lusts after the hot kid in her class, befriends a high school girl and hangs out with a new friend and possible love interest, Gabe (Jake Ryan). Every single event, no matter how big or small, is fraught with tension, excitement, and fear. It’s clear that the advice that Kayla gives in her YouTube videos and the life she leads online is very different from her day-to-day reality.
Eighth grade is a pivotal time in the life of a young teenager. They are on the brink of a big shift in their lives both socially and academically with high school just around the corner. Still in the throes of all the changes that come with puberty, everything is new, different and constantly in flux. Every social situation to them is life or death. Their status in eighth grade sets the bar for what’s to come.
Director Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is an ode to coming of age in a world where social media is part of our every day lives. But for adults watching the film, it’s also a story about anxiety and its overwhelming effects. As someone who was as timid as Kayla was at her age and as an adult who deals with social anxiety every day, I found this film and Kayla’s character endlessly relatable. Just watching the film brought up those feelings of anxiety as I was embarrassed on Kayla’s behalf. I know those situations so intimately and the memory of them is so vivid. That moment when Kayla is at the pool party, looks through the pane of glass to the kids outside, takes a deep breath and walks out, I felt that moment because I’ve lived it so many times. Burnham’s film was therapy for me. Allowing me to process a lot of these emotions as I followed Kayla on her journey.
The best scenes in the movie are the interactions Kayla has with her dad, played by Josh Hamilton. When Kayla explains to her dad he’s being silent wrong, or when she catches him staring at her and her friends at the mall, or the loving conversation by the fire, those moments all reminded me of moments I had with my parents. They’re raw, real, hard to watch but necessary too.
In an interview with Alicia Malone on the FilmStruck podcast, Bo Burnham said he auditioned many kids for the lead role and he saw something in Elsie Fisher that he didn’t see in the other kids. The other actresses were confident kids pretending to be shy. Fisher is the real deal. She brings so much authenticity to her performance. And I love that she’s the character’s age, she has the body type and skin type of pretty much any young girl that age. If you gave her dark eyes, dark hair and an olive skin tone, she’d look exactly like I did in junior high. I could relate to Eighth Grade in a way I couldn’t with Lady Bird. Burnham’s feature debut is a winner and I can’t wait to see more from him.