What it's about: Kayla Day is a rather ordinary 8th grade student in the 21st Century. She's shy and quiet around her peers but she opens up about herself on social media, video blogging self-help advice for kids just like her. While her social skills may be lacking with the "cool kids" in her grade, she has more emotional maturity than those around her. With only a few weeks left in school before making the scary transition into high school, Kayla begins to realize that her best years are ahead -- how could they be any worse? But that doesn't mean it isn't going to be tough growing up.
We've reached a point in the summer where the theaters are stacked with wonderful things to see. The blockbuster season may have peaked early [I think Mission: Impossible is the only big summer flick I'm looking forward to the rest of the season] but the last few weeks have become the time to release the early-year festival hits. And none of them have had as much praise so far than Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade.
It is a little strange watching this directly after Sorry to Bother You, because despite the Sundance acclaim, they couldn't really be any different. Eighth Grade is far more conventional as a coming-of-age dramatic comedy that has a pretty standard episodic structure. But somehow it doesn't feel rote or staged or overplayed. That's a pretty big achievement.
Eighth Grade works because of its specificity. The world it takes place in is one that we all can imagine -- primarily, kids spending all of their time on their phones, in social and digital media. But this world still feels vibrant in the vlogs and the endless scrolling through Instagram and Twitter. It could be a hyper-real world or a boring slog of watching screens on a screen but it is undoubtedly cinematic.
But the real thrust of the film is Kayla and the performance from Elsie Fisher [who, interestingly, is probably best known as the "it's so fluffy" daughter in the first two Despicable Me films]. In a pivotal scene toward the end of the film, Kayla's father remarks that people constantly tell him that he has such a lovely daughter. The word "lovely" is basically perfect for Kayla and Elsie's performance and a lot of Eighth Grade in whole.
Personally, I'm somewhere in the middle of this movie. I'm well older than Kayla at this point, I would have been in 8th grade about 20 years ago, but I'm also on the verge of becoming a father for the first time. Probably not a coincidence, I'm close enough in age to director Bo Burnham [I'm 6 years older]. I remember these formative years being so drastically different than how they are now, though technology still being a natural part of my life. On the other hand, it's beautiful to see what is exactly the same [the awkwardness, the self-doubt, the social stratification] and how technology and social media have had an impact.
On the other end, I was able to connect with the father-daughter relationship extremely well, even though I'm pretty far from these moments. Josh Hamilton's performance is really nice, playing up the dorky dad bits while always coming off as someone who cares. By the end of the film, it is important that the story acknowledges how good of a job he's done being a single father while also relaying that Elsie became a good person on her own.
There is an active shooter drill scene that is portrayed in a totally banal way. There is a little humor added to the situation which makes it even scarier in some ways.
The way the film presents the boy who Kayla has a crush on is one of its best running gags. You can see why she finds Aiden attractive but he is such a boy. He's scrawny, has the blankest possible perpetual dumb look on his face, has absolutely no personality. The Kayla-gaze shots are a fun reversal on how this usually plays out in a boy-centric film.
For as much as I've presented Eighth Grade as a nice, lovely film, let it be known that it gets increasingly dark. As Kayla begins to put herself out there more, especially after getting a high school mentor, the world opens up a bit too much too quickly. One particular scene that takes place in the back seat of a car is almost too tense for the film around it, but you have to appreciate the film not shying away.
After some of the darker or emotionally wrenching scenes at the start of the third act, Eighth Grade does something brilliant in having perhaps the most outwardly comical and charming scene of the entire film follow up. On its road to leaving on a high note, a first friends' date over Chicken McNuggets is a step back into a less experienced world where Kayla can be herself. And Gabe is just the kind of goofy suitor that brings out the best in her.