Feels on Reels: Eighth Grade
by: Bossladies Film Editor, Jenna Gundersen
I recognized enough things in Bo Burnham’s new film, Eighth Grade, to make me squirm with unwelcome nostalgia. (Fellow millennials, get ready to feel old: we’ve lived so long that chokers, monogrammed backpacks, mall hangouts, and Enya songs are back in style.) What’s changed, of course, is that kids these days have social media.
We’re introduced to our protagonist Kayla, played earnestly by Elsie Fisher, via YouTube. Sitting in front of a DIY backdrop, Kayla shares a motivational message about the importance of being yourself. Her speech is punctuated by ums, likes, and you knows, but you can’t mistake her determination to believe what she’s saying. Later, we glimpse her YouTube reel: the videos have 7 views, tops. However, quiet Kayla isn’t seeking attention or fame; these pep talks are her way of coaching herself through the awkward trials of middle school.
In many ways, Eighth Grade feels like Lady Bird’s little sister. Both films feature strong leads navigating a graduation: Kayla entering high school, Lady Bird heading off to college. Both treat their heroines with respect: they don’t downplay the significance of relationships and experiences that happen in adolescence. Strikingly and tastefully, humor underscores drama. Yet while Lady Bird is on a quest to discover what she’s made of, Kayla already knows—only she isn’t sure she likes herself, or if anybody does.
In Eighth Grade, you’ll meet the popular crew: two snooty girls with the emotional depth of a blank wall. Kayla’s crush: a boy who buzzes his lips to sound like a deflating balloon and who doesn’t text a girl unless she sends him dirty pics (basically preteen, pre-delinquent Charlie Sheen). You’ll also meet Kayla’s endearing dad, played by Josh Hamilton; he’s the parent organizing school fundraisers, writing reminders in his iPhone about his daughter’s hatred of bananas, and sometimes throwing string beans at phone-fixated Kayla during dinner. His dedication to being “good dad” reminds me of a puppy flunking K9 kindergarten because he keeps jumping up to lick the trainer’s face.
But the film’s second string of characters is far more interesting. As part of the transition from eighth grade to high school, the school pairs each eighth grader with a senior student. Kayla is matched with Olivia (Emily Robinson), who radiates positive energy. Although Kayla doesn’t see it, Olivia is also awkward; the two speak in similar cadences and have a common vocabulary (get ready to hear the word “like” a lot). We’re meant to see the parallel here: Olivia is who Kayla wants to be when she’s a senior. Olivia seems honest enough when she reassures Kayla she’s “super chill” and invites her to hang out at the mall. On the other hand, Olivia’s friend, Riley, is cast in murkier light.
As the quiet ones of Olivia’s friend group, Riley and Kayla share a tenuous bond. However, this fellowship falters when Kayla hitches a ride home from the mall with Riley (the dark-haired and distant Daniel Zolghadri). After telling her it’s “kinda awkward talking when you’re in the back seat,” Riley pulls over to the side of the road and sits beside her. This is the closest Kayla has ever come to intimacy: she laughs nervously and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. Riley suggests a game of Truth or Dare and, although he’s not physically aggressive, his behavior feels predatory. I had no idea how far the film would go—all I’ll say here is that Kayla is apologetic. When Riley is back in the driver’s seat, he tells her: “This was about you. I was trying to help you.” The line carries weight, especially in context of #metoo; it’s a moment Burnham lets settle. As soon as she’s home, Kayla runs to her room, crying, and her dad comforts her. Their audio is muted, which conveys far more punch than their words ever could.
Shortly after, with her dad’s help, Kayla burns an old time capsule. (A box labeled, “To the coolest girl in the world,” it’s filled with predictable mementos a ten-year-old girl would cherish.) As they watch the flames, Kayla asks her dad if she makes him sad. “Maybe I’ll have a daughter of my own,” she continues, “and I think if she turned out like me, being her mom would make me really sad.” Her dad rambles, grasping for words to sum up how proud he is of her: words that will resonate and not send her reaching for her phone. He’s successful. Kayla hears what she’s been telling herself all along—only hearing it from someone else makes all the difference.
On graduation day, a self-assured Kayla calls out the popular girls for being rude and goes on a “hangout” with a wholesomely quirky boy (hands down, it’s the film’s funniest scene). Right before the credits, Kayla records another video: this one to put in a time capsule she’ll open after graduating high school. “I can’t wait to be you,” she tells herself.
Verdict: Eighth Grade hints at heavy themes, such as school shootings and #metoo, but largely inhabits lighter territory. Pivoting on awkwardness and insight, the film depicts an ordinary middle schooler’s life: unfiltered and recognizable.