Eighth Grade: A YouTube-age girl's touching voyage through pre-high-school hell

By Karen Gordon

Rating: A

Writer/director Bo Burnham hits it out of the park with his first film Eighth Grade, a small, lovely, touching movie that sums up all that’s wrong and all that’s right with being a teen and feeling unmoored.

Read our interview with Eighth Grade writer/director Bo Burnham

Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, who facing the last two weeks of Grade Eight with dread. Next year she’s going to high school, and she’s not sure there's any reason to be hopeful. 

Kayla’s an awkward, schlumpy teen with bad posture and skin prone to break-outs.  From an adult’s perspective, she’s adorable. But we don’t have to go to school every day where so many fellow students are thin, beautiful and dressed to the nines, just like celebrities. 

 Elsie Fisher is Kayla, searching in vain for some kind of identity on YouTube in Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher is Kayla, searching in vain for some kind of identity on YouTube in Eighth Grade

Kayla’s definitely not one of the cool girls at school and feels that keenly. She pines after a floppy-haired, sulking, hormonal classmate, who doesn’t seem to be interested in much beyond the tip of his nose. 

In the evenings, Kayla retreats to her room to follow life on social media. She’s trying to up her social currency by creating her own YouTube channel, but she’s not articulate, and doesn’t have that much insight anyway.  

As for friends, an invite to a cool girl’s birthday party comes out of the blue - forced by the cool girl’s mom who apparently hopes Kayla’s dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) will stop by as well. 

Mark’s a single dad, and is unsure of how to understand his daughter at this point in her life. He’s earnest as hell, hesitant and slightly awkward. Kayla, who at school is too nervous to say much, barks rudely at her dad when he tries to talk to her.  And for his part, for a long time in the film it’s hard to say whether he’s just ineffective, or very patient.

Elsie Fisher doesn’t elevate Kayla at all. This is not a story about a teen hero, just a teen going through her life, struggling to find herself, and to make herself believe in happy endings.

This is an impressive debut by writer/director Bo Burnham, who, still in his twenties, has an enviable resume, that includes work as a comedian, musician, rapper, actor and producer.  Burnham, who got his start by doing YouTube videos when he was a teen, talks openly about his struggles with anxiety, and how this film was meant to reflect that aspect of the teen years. 

Bullseye. 

Eighth Grade doesn’t explicitly deal with anxiety. Rather, it suggests anxiety, and sometimes even induces it in us, as we watch Kayla attempt to navigate predictable teen hurdles.  

In the end, Burnham’s debut is a little gem that feels true and is surprisingly tender.

Eighth Grade. Written and directed by Bo Burnham. Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton. Opens wide, Friday, July 20.