For most people, especially the no doubt charismatic lot we have collected here, the eighth grade wasn’t their finest hour. It wasn’t a bad year for me all things considered, my three years of high school were far worse, but I’m certainly not looking back at those years with any fondness or nostalgia whatsoever. It’s hard to define exactly what that period is like since it is rather different for everyone as people lurch through the awfulness of puberty at different rates while dealing with the pressures of school and life. It’s that changing that Eighth Grade seeks to capture as it looks at the final weeks of middle school for one girl.
That girl, Kayla (played pitch perfectly by Elsie Fisher of Despicable Me), is a quiet, introverted, and friendless and spends her time on her phone and making little seen motivational videos to post on YouTube (she also “plays” cymbals in the band but that shows up in one scene and is never mentioned again). Which speaking of the phones, the school seems ridiculously lenient when it comes to letting the kids using their phones in class and in the hallways. Back in my day (and based on what I know from teachers who still do it, this is still the case), we had to poorly hide our phones under the desks, behind bags, whatever or they’d be taken away. It feels like the film just is including all this to make a point or something about the youts and their damn smartphones.
Throughout the movie, we watch as she attempts to come out of her shell, her (intentionally) terrible YouTube things serving as a sort of narration, framing, and occasionally ironic counterpoint as she portrays herself in them as the person she wishes she was. It’s a portrayal that’s easy to see through as even in the videos her stammering and unease shine through and betray her real personality. These attempts are pure nightmare fuel and it was an incredibly hard movie to watch. I had major Welcome to the Dollhouse flashbacks here, though this film is far better made and less cynical, and I found so much of it deeply unpleasant to sit through.
I’d rather endure the shock horror films of the world than the ones that make me have to watch as a believably dorky person puts themselves in uncomfortable situation after situation. It’s a problem that is only amplified anytime the subject of sexual situations came up which is even more painful to watch. A lot of it feels pretty real, not all of it as Josh Hamilton as Stock Indie Dad who definitely watched Call Me By Your Name and the videos doubling as morals of the story are straight out of the indie drama playbook, but that doesn’t mean that I wanted to crawl out of my skin or bury my face in my hands any less. It’s not helped by an electronic score, handled by Anna Meredith, which is frequently atonal and overbearing.
First time writer-director Bo Burnham (a comedian who what little I know about comes from my sister being a fan) shows an adept knowledge of the subject matter or at least as best I can figure as someone who was never a 13-year-old girl. It has some relatable portions especially in the way she describes how she almost perfectly describes anxiety without saying the word, but there are other more relatable recent titles at least for me. It’s well made, I just can’t shake the fact that I spent most of the film wishing I was anywhere but in the theater having to endure the second-hand discomfort.