The film “Eighth Grade” begins with Kayla Day, portrayed, in a poignant manner, by Golden Globe nominee Elsie Fisher (Despicable Me). She is the thirteen year old host of a YouTube series, where she imparts advice to other adolescents. During the opening scene, she is offering advice to others her age, on how to be themselves. Based upon the views she receives, which are shown briefly on screen, as she scrolls through her past vlogs, she doesn’t have much of an audience for her efforts. The viewer will realize, as they watch the film, that the advice vlogs that Kayla posts, are, for the most part, advice that she should be taking herself, but more often than not, doesn’t.
Kayla suffers from low self-esteem, and even though she professes not to be a quiet person, in one of her vlogs, she is voted most quiet by her peers. Furthermore, sadly, at least at the start of the film, it seems as if Kayla has no friends, as she yearns to be like Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), the most popular girl in the eighth grade. Kayla also has a massive crush on Aiden (Luke Prael), a guy who doesn’t even seem to know she exists. Additionally, Kayla lives at home with her single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton); her mother’s absence is not immediately explained. Like a majority of teenagers, she wants little to do with her father, who from all indicators, is trying his best to communicate with Kayla, and let her know how special he thinks she is. (As an aside: “Eighth Grade” started filming one week after actress Elsie Fisher graduated from eighth grade”).
The 93 minute runtime of “Eighth Grade,” the feature film debut for writer and director Bo Burnham, takes place during the last week of middle school. During the course of that one week, Kayla experiences a wide array of things. For example, she is invited to Kennedy’s birthday party, not because Kennedy wanted her to attend, but because Kennedy’s mother forced her to invite Kayla. Making matters worse for Kayla, the party is a pool party; the thought of stepping out in her bathing suit, in front of all her peers, sends pangs of anxiety through Kayla’s entire body. Not everything, however, that takes place for Kayla during the last week of school is bad. I was glad, as a viewer who was rooting for Kayla, that Burnham opted not to make everything that transpired in her life, an anxiety ridden or awkward occurrence. For example, on a trip, to what will be her high school the following year, Kayla is paired up with Olivia. She is an outwardly friendly senior, played by Emily Robinson (Transparent), who takes an instant liking to Kayla; at the conclusion of their day together, Olivia even gives Kayla her phone number to call, if she wants to hang out. Incidents like that are what, at an almost imperceptible pace, make Kayla begin to realize her value. Her small moments of happiness, buoyed by words of encouragement, and moments where she can feel good about herself, shows Kayla taking steps towards greater acceptance.
Burnham, I felt, did an excellent job of capturing the reality of how teenagers actually talk and act. Most teens, certainly not all, but most, stumble when they speak, and their conversation is full of the go to phrases of ‘like,’ and ‘um.’ Conversations for someone like Kayla, who is attempting to break free from her social isolation, can be especially awkward. For example, she tells one of her peers that she likes his shirt, and immediately follows her comment up with the statement, that she has a shirt too.
As a former middle school teacher, I can say with certainty, that “Eighth Grade” does a competent job of capturing the extreme awkwardness that young teens are dealing with during that period of their lives. The problems that today’s teenagers deal with, such as the bullying via social media, or just the need to constantly seek validation via the various social media platforms, is a reality, that unfortunately, I don’t envision ending anytime in the near future. There was a scene that takes place during a school assembly that shows virtually every student sitting in the auditorium using their cell phone. That wouldn’t have been permitted where I used to work, and it especially wouldn’t have been allowed when I was a student, but that is the world we live in. Furthermore, the real potential for an active school shooter at any level of education, is touched on, that was something that was not on anyone’s mind when I was a student, but certainly was, by the time I was teaching.
At the end of her middle school years, Kayla begins to realize, that her situation is not a permanent one; eighth grade is coming to an end, as will high school one day. When that happens Kayla will venture out into the world, that for someone talented and intelligent like herself, has numerous possibilities as to where she can go, and what she can accomplish; it all depends on what type of person she allows herself to become. In conclusion, the film is not so much a depiction of what has transpired in Kayla’s life during her final week of middle school. Instead, it is a realistic look, into the life of a socially awkward teenager, who has a great deal to offer those, who are willing to give her a chance.