Ah, a tale of a kid who feels like an outsider. It’s not exactly untapped territory for a movie, yet comedian Bo Burnham, in his assured debut as a writer-director, approaches this material with tones and angles that haven’t been put together quite like this before. In “Eighth Grade,” Burnham writes from the heart about his own experiences as an eighth-grader, but the character emerged on the page as a girl, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher, who has a tremendous career ahead of her), and in present day.
The opening scene is one of Kayla’s YouTube videos, where she shares her perspectives on issues such as confidence and friendship. It’s filled with “ums” and “likes” and phrases such as “the hard part is that it’s not easy.” She is in many ways a typical eighth-grader – distressingly, even boringly so. This scene appropriately drew lots of laughs from the audience in the art-house theater where I saw the picture. But what’s great about “Eighth Grade” is that comedy is just one of its many notes. Still, one thing remains steady: We can’t help but grow to love Kayla.
In a father-daughter dinner scene — which from Kayla’s perspective consists of surfing on her cellphone, listing to loud pop music on her earbuds, and letting her food get cold because she “likes it that way” – we sense Mark Day’s (Josh Hamilton) desire to express how much he loves her and wants the best for her. He’s met with a series of “Fine”s that will make us all want to apologize to our parents for our teenage behavior.
Mark is not all that articulate himself, but he eventually nails it, and so does Kayla, in a pair of late-film monologues. Mark’s is a lovely treatise on how there are two layers of emotions for parents: the upper layer that lives and dies by their child’s successes and pains, and the lower layer of unending love. Later, Kayla – while not having conquered the “ums” and “likes” – says one of the most profound things ever said in this seemingly tapped-out genre. My movie-going buddy said Kayla’s words described him to a tee; I felt the same way; and ultimately I think it’s safe to say it describes many people. (That’s the downside of character piece that’s so well made that everyone loves it. You can’t keep it to yourself.)
Burnham’s directorial choices are crucial, as “Eighth Grade’s” script could’ve led to a standard comedy. Take something like Kayla’s list of goals and how to achieve them. In the “goal” column, she has “make a best friend.” In the “how to achieve it” column, she puts “Make a bunch of friends and pick a favorite.” That’d be funny in a sitcom too, but here it has genuine sweetness because we are so in the trenches with Kayla, who is as self-absorbed as the average teen yet has an aching empathy for other human beings.
The picture could’ve gone mainstream with a more clean-scrubbed lead actress, bright lighting, traditional camera choices and a modern soft-pop soundtrack. It’s unfair to Fisher that she has a face full of acne while the other performers look like they stepped off the Disney Channel soundstages on their way over to the Freeform studios, but it’s one of numerous ways “Eighth Grade” is intimate with the outsider. Burnham and his crew also put some scenes in near darkness, ask us to focus on only part of the screen, or dial up an intense piece of music to demonstrate what a moment means to Kayla. There are movies about the end of the world with a less dramatic score.
A sequence that cinches our solidarity with Kayla is at a pool party (where she was invited by a classmate’s mom, natch). We see her from the back as she walks around the deck. She enters the water, holds her nose, goes under … all unseen by her cohorts, who are having fun in the most telegraphed teen-movie ways.
The film isn’t all invisible-girl adventures, because Kayla is the center of attention at other times. Burnham goes broad enough to allow us the breather of “American Pie”-style hijinks. “Eighth Grade’s” contribution to the lists of fruits being sexualized is the banana.
At the other end of the spectrum is a hard-to-watch backseat scene. (I suspect this film will be admired and analyzed enough that we can soon just say “pool scene,” “banana scene” and “backseat scene” in shorthand.) But the sequence inspires so many feelings in addition to that: It’s horrifying, yes, but it’s also funny, predictable, demoralizing, and weirdly life-affirming.
While Burnham’s (and our) gaze never wavers from Kayla, it doesn’t make caricatures out of the other characters except for the fact that they were cast with a different eye than the one that cast Fisher. For example, Olivia (Emily Robinson) – Kayla’s assigned buddy for high-school orientation – and Gabe (Jake Ryan) – who is quirky in a different way from Kayla — are delightful, because they embrace our heroine without judgement.
And while they are structurally the villains, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and Steph (Nora Mullins) don’t approach “Carrie” territory in their treatment of Kayla; they simply don’t see her over the tops of their smartphones.
It’s their loss, of course. By the film’s end, Kayla’s outward behavior and speeches (that one bit of almost accidental profundity aside) are no less clichéd than at the beginning. She probably has not moved beyond making herself up in the mirror and taking a fake “I just woke up” photo for Instagram. But she has grown in the layer beneath that. That layer is usually impossible to see, but Burnham illuminates it in the best film I’ve seen this year.