Bo Burnham is, in the UK at least, a very underrated comedian, but his knowledge of timing, emotion and the balance between comedy and tragedy is stunning. His debut feature film ‘Eighth Grade’ is a stunning piece that beautifully depicts the social anxiety of an Eighth Grader (in the UK, a Year 9 student), and the struggles she has to work her way through. It’s been a while since there was a film that was this funny, this tragic and this heartwarming.
In her last week of classes before leaving middle school, Kayla Day decides she needs to work on her confidence and self-image. Though she makes inspirational YouTube videos that get one or two views, she cannot carry that theory into practice. There is an interesting irony that the lessons she teaches in her videos are not carried out in her actual life, and it’s only when she starts listening to herself and being confident in her own abilities that she will find the bravery to overcome her fears. The soft story beats allow for a lot of character development, and this is where the film shines.
Playing Kayla is 16-year-old Elsie Fisher (who would have been 14/15 during shooting) and BLOODY HELL does she deliver a stunning central performance. For someone of her age, she knocked me for six as she has such a mature sense of timing and story. She is funny, awkward and also doesn’t hide her emotions, and she totally carries the film in the best possible way. Another incredible performance came from Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s Dad. He does a perfect job of trying to understand his daughter without ever being too over bearing. He also delivers the most emotional scene of the film, but I won’t mention any more of that for fear of spoilers.
The film is brilliantly creative in its directional choices. In one scene where Kayla attends a Pool Party, Burnham chooses to shoot it like a wildlife documentary, imagining the playing kids as animals in a feeding frenzy at the watering hole. The musical choice is a score created by Anna Meredith, and the fully electronic score is soft in places, but also very harsh and distracting in other places. This is perfectly observed, as it mirrors Kayla’s soft personal nature against the harsh reality of the anxiety she faces every day.
Burnham’s own knowledge is very prominent in this film. Bo was a YouTuber and Vine creator for many years, and this strange sense of humour comes across. His use of meme culture is also very fun, with one kid (who is never seen) constantly shouting ‘Lebron James’ for a cheap laugh throughout the film. He also has teachers ‘dabbing’ for the kids, and his knowledge of tech and social media sites is also well utilised.
However, the film also delivers some harsh truths about school life in America. Firstly, it references school shootings in a truly chilling scene where kids must prepare for that scenario, and it also deals heavily with themes of addition to technology, sexuality, consent and mental health. Burnham’s own struggles with mental health means the film deals with the topic very sensitively, and makes all audiences understand the trauma Kayla, and many others like her, must be going through.
Overall, Eighth Grade is a stunningly well observed piece that should be essential viewing for Generation Z. It’s understated, very accurate, and has important lessons about mental health and addition. On top of all that, it has a truly incredible central performance from a young actor who I’m sure will go on to do fantastic things with her career.