Early in Eighth Grade, there’s a swimming sequence that’s almost as harrowing as Jaws.
Kayla (Elsie Fisher), whose middle-school years have been unremarkable and largely friendless, has convinced herself to attend a pool party to which she has been reluctantly invited (it was her classmate’s mother, not the popular classmate, who extended the offer). Donning a one-piece bathing suit that’s conspicuous in its modesty, while still exposing a physique quite different from the lithe bodies giggling and splashing about, Kayla bravely walks through the backyard, at once glad not to be noticed and disheartened that no one says hello to her. Slipping into the water, she clings to a lonely section of the wall. After a few painful seconds, she’s startled by a nerdy pair of goggles that emerge next to her, belonging to the the popular girl’s socially awkward cousin. As I watched him talk to Kayla—casually acknowledging her existence—I let out an audible sigh of relief.
Eighth Grade, the writing-directing debut of Bo Burnham, repeats this emotionally jarring pattern throughout. Sequences detail the horrible realities of being unpopular in middle school, then give us a glimmer of hope just as we’re about to succumb to despair. It’s an exhausting, if ultimately uplifting, experience.
Eighth Grade is particularly attuned to the ways the timeless and universal anxieties of these adolescent years have only been amplified by social media. As Kayla scrolls and scrolls through her various feeds, Burnham depicts the activity as if it was a religious ritual. She darkens the lights in her room—save for the colored strings that hang about in mystic loops—then bows before the holy glow of her screens. She seeks, if not transcendence, the mysterious keys to social acceptance. The sad irony of this is that her pursuit of online approval often shuts out the one person, in real life, who loves her: her father (Josh Hamilton). Curious and encouraging, he’s the opposite of the indifferent parents we usually get in movies dramatizing these years. Yet Kayla sits across from him at the dinner table with her earbuds in.
Hamilton is goofy and endearing, mostly wearing a mournful smile that Kayla describes as “weird and sad.” But this is Fisher’s movie. It’s a fearless performance in many ways, not least of which is her willingness to make Kayla unlikable. The different layers Fisher brings to the character are most evident in the scenes of Kayla recording videos for her advice channel on YouTube. She claims to be offering an honest perspective on adolescence here, but we know it’s actually a fantasy version of her own life that she describes. (In one video, she presents herself as the girl who was forced to invite the unpopular classmate to her pool party.) In these scenes, Fisher must at once convince us of Kayla’s foundational insecurity, of her performative demeanor as a YouTube star in her own mind, and of her inner awareness of the chasm that exists between these two realities. She succeeds on all three counts.
As distressing as Eighth Grade can get—and Kayla has an encounter with a high-school boy that had me once again holding my breath—the movie always makes that turn toward the comforting and affirming (which distinguishes it from other middle-school chronicles like The 400 Blows and Welcome to the Dollhouse). This in and of itself isn’t an issue, yet in its eagerness to please, Eighth Grade does go for some sunnier touches that feel good in the moment but don’t necessarily ring true upon closer inspection. I’m thinking of Kayla putting the class snob in her place on graduation day; her final, honestly inspirational YouTube video; or even her encouraging campfire chat with her dad. That latter scene is a tear-jerker, I’ll admit, even if it’s relying mostly on our wishes for these characters rather than the reality they’re facing. Still, there’s plenty of harshness out there—for movie middle-schoolers and all of us. Who am I to complain that Eighth Grade wants to meet that not with more misery, but a warm hug?