Photo by Ash Fuentes
I’m so grateful that I existed at the same time that this one movie in particular came out. It may not be exactly well known by many people, but that doesn’t devalue it at all. I don’t mean that in a pretentious filmbuff “I-Only-Watch-Indie-Films-And-My-Favorite-Director-Is-Quentin-Tarantino” type of way, but whenever I bring up the title, most people have no clue what I’m referring to.
I wish more people recognized this movie because this is a rare moment where one of the movies I like is actually award-winning. However, when I say “Eighth Grade” (2018), directed by Bo Burnham, is one of the greatest movies of all time and deserved all of the awards it won, I sincerely mean it.
Although it fails to put more positive women influences in the main character’s life and does not have a truly diverse main cast, emotionally it can check off a lot of what I was looking for in a good film.
For those of you who don’t know Bo Burnham, before he was a director, he gained recognition on YouTube and as a standup comedian. So naturally, he’s a really funny (and talented) dude. He actually made his directorial debut with “Eighth Grade” and wrote the screenplay, which makes it just that more impressive.
Without his background of writing comedy music, spreading laughter, and making videos, a movie like this honestly would not have been as good. He created a movie that accurately portrays what it’s like to come of age in that weird in-between range of people who aren’t quite Millennials but aren’t quite Gen Z.
There’s even a few Vine references seamlessly incorporated into the middle school that are done justice, which I assume is due to Burnham’s time as a Viner. If you search up Vine compilations of him, you’ll recognize more than you expect. No one could forget the iconic, “Is there anything better than pussy? Yes. A Really good book”?
If this script was done by big names in Hollywood, the quality would have fallen heights like Lil Nas X from the Heavens (stream “Montero”!). The jokes would’ve heavily revolved around cheesy one liners, the cringe moments would’ve been unintentional instead of relatable, the middle schoolers would’ve been played by 20 year olds, and the high schoolers played by 30 year olds. The fact that the film isn’t like that at all is already a good sign!
As a viewer, you can immediately tell Burnham is writing from experience and the time he takes to carefully construct the story with an immense amount of detail makes it so personal. I don’t know how else to explain how well he understands coming-of-age other than he just gets it. It’s like he’s the only adult who was a kid once, or at least remembers being a kid enough to accurately write from the point of view.
The main character, Kayla Day, played by Elsie Fisher (who is also hilarious IRL), is a 13-year-old kid, trying to navigate the transition between the last year of middle school and the first year of high school in a modern age of preteen awkwardness. Already, the logline makes it sound terrifying. Middle school was an uncomfortable time for everyone, I’m sure.
Personally eighth grade for me really was the epitome of death. Everyday held newfound embarrassment and the scent of ridicule stained the air. Mortification lingered in the halls after collecting for years and years. I hate to relive the era but at the same time, going through Kayla’s point of view makes my memories a little less dreadful because, much like her, I realized I wasn’t seeing the full picture of my preteen youth until long after the days passed me by.
An important piece to this film is how Kayla was made to be far too relatable. The awkward selfies, the social anxiety, puberty, the hopeless first crush, first attempts at doing your own makeup, and the burning desire to become a YouTuber. She didn’t miss! Having a major transition between middle to high school while the world was transitioning into a social media world was a difficult part of growing up. Maybe not as terrible as a global pandemic, but honestly just as impactful.
Young teens are pressured into sharing their lives on social media and feel desperate to have a “cool” persona. They are easily influenced by influencers, exposed to questionable content quite early in their lives, care about the likes they get, and feel more important if they have a significant following. Like everybody else, Kayla just wanted to be popular and well-liked. It is easy to fall into the routine of trying to appeal to other people.
Kayla started making videos on YouTube, although one of her only viewers was her dad. The amount of views she gets doesn’t stop her from posting. She doesn’t upload makeup tutorials, daily vlogs, or challenge videos, but instead much more wholesome content such as advice on making friends or putting yourself out there. Her videos were the type of content that she wanted to see. She gave helpful life advice to young girls because nobody was there to do it for her. She just wanted somebody to notice that she was trying.
The anxiety that she feels on a daily basis will always live in my mind because of Bo Burnham’s writing, but Elsie Fisher’s acting really sold the role as well. Burnham himself said he casted Fisher because “she was the only one who played it like a shy kid pretending to be confident.” You will be able to feel this character’s shaky breathing and timid heartbeat inside of you as though it were your own. The overthinking and need to have a plan for every bit of interaction with another human being felt like they were taken straight out of my younger self’s mind.
On top of being able to portray anxiety super well, Fisher made the character feel real. She came off as a regular kid blending in as they walked the halls of middle school, rather than a famous actor randomly placed amongst a bunch of extras. Sometimes her stance felt a bit awkward instead of perfectly poised. Her mannerisms weren’t over the top. She made being nervous feel natural.
I also admired the way that her character looked on screen. A middle class kid that wasn’t wearing designer clothes with a style to be envious of. Her wardrobe mainly consisted of t-shirts and jeans, even sporting a Hollister graphic tee with the large-printed logo in one scene. She had a side part and hair that didn’t stay down all the time. Her skin looked natural and real, and she didn’t seem way older than the age she was trying to pass for. I appreciated that the movie didn’t seriously focus on the main character trying to get a makeover and change her looks to appeal to the other people at school, which avoided setting an unrealistic standard for young girls.
The soundtrack by Anna Meredith perfectly captures what it feels like to have your heart pounding into your ears or your voice catching in your throat. It’s impossible not to think of every humiliating thing I ever did in the past, no matter how insignificant it was, and it’s as if Anna Meredith composed that feeling. She turned discomfort and flashbacks into music.
The soundtrack on top of Kayla’s embarrassing moments, flooded thought process, and overall persona are sure to have your stomach dipping as you watch. She still has a long way to grow, but Kayla Day is overwhelmingly relatable.
If you’re looking for a comforting, powerful, coming-of-age story with a happy ending, then make room on your watchlist for “Eighth Grade.”