Bo Burnham is one of the most unique voices in his stand-up comedy in the last few decades. His love of music and theater with an aggressive, unorthodox delivery, Bo garnered a rabid fan base. These fans are primarily high school and college students. His first two recorded specials were Words Words Words and what. Ultimately, his ascension to comedy godhood, however, came with the Netflix special Make Happy. While adding heavy doses of existentialism and depressed introspection to his formula, it climaxes in an emotion-fueled finale of laughter and tears. This is sure to go down in history as one of the greatest moments in stand-up comedy. However, with the release of his writing/directorial debut, Eighth Grade, all that changed. I lean toward proposing that the stage was holding him back from his full potential.
Kayla (Elise Fisher) is one week away from graduating middle school. After a disastrous three years, she must salvage her reputation and social life in the next seven days. While that setup sounds bare bones, it leads to a lot of opportunities. We see the lengths she’s willing to go to for popularity and the following consequences. Some results are hilarious while others are simply uncomfortable in their realism.
Realism is probably the film’s strongest point. I’m amazed how the story by a 27-year-old man can accurately portray the life of a 14-year-old girl in today’s culture. The film nails the role of social media in the lives of today’s youth. Constantly checking Snapchat, Instagram, and text messages for some sign that they’re not alone.
Bo also wrote the characters extremely well. Kayla is often shy and keeps to herself. However, when she gets around somebody she’s comfortable with, she opens up like anybody would in a welcoming environment. The other kids in her class act just like kids their age. They’re awkward, they show off, they blurt out their feelings, they’re blunt, they’re distracted. It’s impressive how convincingly he wrote them. What’s even more impressive is that all the kids give such convincing performances for their age.
Kayla’s father is also a nice surprise. I expected him to be the awkward, obstinate parent that appears in many teen movies. However, they make him feel like a real parent. He makes dad jokes, he’s supportive of his daughter, he makes mistakes, but he always means well. All of the characters are confused people trying to get through life in a crazy world. This is not unlike many people in real life these days.
While Burnham’s direction is pretty standard and not very visually interesting, there’s nothing wrong with it. This seems to be a film that focuses more on the drama of the story rather than technical mastery of filmmaking. However, that doesn’t mean that the film is entirely without technical merits. Kayla often has the frame to herself, signifying her loneliness and vulnerability, even in scenes where she’s with other people. The lighting is good at portraying the mood, especially at a point in the story where things get dark and uncomfortable.
Eighth Grade Final Thoughts
This movie is a minor miracle. It’s the directorial/writing debut of a stand-up comedian with no prior film experience. It has a cast entirely of child actors who are notorious for giving horrible performances. It’s about the millennial generation and tries to incorporate the presence of social media in their lives. All of these elements should add up to a gigantic failure, and yet, Eighth Grade goes above and beyond expectations. The emotions are strong and genuine, the characters feel real and likable and it’s the first film I’ve seen about the younger generation that actually feels like it understands what it’s like to grow up in this world. It’s only in a few theaters, but if it’s playing in your area, you owe it to yourself to run out and see this.