Social gatherings are hard for me. While standing amidst various groups of people I’ll often feel like Patrick Swayze’s character in Ghost – either invisible or needing Whoopi Goldberg to act as an intermediate for me; in my case, she’d help translate my awkwardness. While watching the protagonist of Eighth Grade, director Bo Burnham’s charming coming-of-age film, I couldn’t help but relate while watching her struggles with social anxiety.
No matter how long it’s been since you’ve roomed the halls of a middle school, Eighth Grade resonates with endearing performances and exceptionally naturalistic storytelling and direction. Both written and directed by Burnham, the plot follows Kayla, a thirteen-year-old in her last week of eighth grade. With graduation fast approaching, Kayla, who finds herself anxious in social situations, must overcome a variety of scenarios each pushing her to exit her comfort zone.
True Life — Eighth Grade:
Eighth Grade is much less interested in amping up situations for dramatic effect then it is simply observing and recreating an authentic youthful experience. There’s a natural sense of flow from scene to scene as we follow Kayla in her day-to-day life. Through this examination, Burnham is able to capture some of the humorous quirks of adolescence in his script.
Kids throw out slang such as “Gucci,” one randomly sniffs a marker, others randomly say “LeBron James” at school functions. Why is the simple act of saying “LeBron James” so funny? I don’t know, but it’s hilarious.
Burnham, whose career path has included being a successful comedian, isn’t just interested in exploring Kayla’s experience comedically, but also honestly. Kayla and her peers have faces covered in acne and the kids are played by actual youngsters, helping the story feel real. Throughout you never feel like you’re watching a glamorized middle school experience through rose-tinted glasses.
Another aspect of the film’s authenticity comes from the inclusion of social media — something that is a common aspect in the lives of today’s youth.
“When did you get Snapchat? What grade?” Kayla is asked by a high schooler.
“Fifth grade,” she responds sheepishly.
At one point we see Kayla absorbed in the content on her phone, distracted from making small talk with her dad at the dinner table. Through scenes such as this, we see that Kayla uses social media as a form of self-protection and escape from her anxiety — like a turtle hiding in its shell from the outside world.
It’s through Kayla’s moments of anxiety that Burnham is able to intimately portray what it feels like to experience it. Kayla arriving at a pool party has the uneasiness of a horror movie. The camera slowly zooms out as she looks at the ongoing party from behind the safety of a glass door.
A later scene shows Kayla’s anxiousness in making a phone call. The camera follows her back and forth as she paces around her bedroom. We’re firmly put into Kayla’s head space, and these social interactions can have the weight of an athlete preparing to start an Olympic event.
These scenes wouldn’t have as much impact without Elsie Fisher, who plays Kayla. Fisher gives a nuanced performance that feels so genuine. In one scene Kayla nervously stumbles over her words while unexpectedly running into her crush.
In scenes such as this, you’re never under the impression that Fisher is reading a script. Whether it’s finding the courage to talk to someone or sing a karaoke song in a crowded room, Fisher makes it so you can’t help but root for her character.
Also impressive is Josh Hamilton, who plays Kayla’s dad Mark. Hamilton is extremely likable and charming in his performance. Mark is supportive of Kayla, even if he doesn’t know all the right words to say.
In one scene Mark comforts Kayla, who’s embarrassed after she caught him checking up on her at the Mall. Kayla tells him she’ll get a ride home with the group she’s with instead of him. Hamilton is able to sell the hurt reaction Mark has with one soul-crushing look.
Through their performances and dynamic, Fisher and Hamilton provide a great emotional through line in Eighth Grade; with Burnham’s script they make the film easy to become invested in.
Final Verdict — Eighth Grade:
As someone who’s struggled with anxiety themselves, I know from experience how isolated it can make one feel. With its naturalistic direction, script, and performances, Eighth Grade truly allows you to take a walk in Kayla’s shoes; once in them, there’s comfort in knowing you’re not alone if they feel familiar.
Burnham’s film delivers its message with heart: overcoming anxiety may be hard, but it is possible as long as you take a small step forward.