There are mean girls (and boys) in Eighth Grade, but Bo Burnham’s debut feature film wisely tells the story through the eyes of Kayla, a misfit 13 year-old struggling to survive middle school. Elsie Fisher, who is actually 13, is so real in the role that the movie often feels like a documentary. We’re drawn in right from the opening scene when Kayla shuffles her notes and stares into the camera as she records a video for her YouTube channel. She gives advice to other young people on topics like “Be Yourself” and “Put Yourself Out There,” but we soon realize Kayla is speaking to herself, each video a pep talk so she can face another day in the gauntlet that is middle school.
Kayla lives with her dad (the absence of her mother isn’t explained until the end of the film). She does her best to keep him in the dark, partly because she craves her privacy, but also because she’s embarrassed for him to learn that she’s friendless. As her father, Josh Hamilton is a study in parental patience as he endures silence, drop dead stares, and locked doors. At dinnertime, Kayla keeps plugged into her phone while her dad tries to get her attention with praise like “Your videos are amazing.”
Kayla and her classmates are in their final days of middle school, a transition both exciting and frightening. The end-of-school-year events include announcing the class “superlatives” (much to her embarrassment, Kayla is pronounced “most quiet”), and the opening of time capsule boxes that were put together in sixth grade. When she finally has the courage to open hers, Kayla seems disappointed in the contents. Later we learn why when she plugs into her computer a Sponge Bob Square Pants thumb drive and listens to her perky sixth-grade self asking questions (“Do you have a boyfriend?”) about what was supposed to be an amazing eighth grade experience.
A birthday pool party forces Kayla out of her comfort zone. The invitation is extended, not by the birthday girl, Kennedy (a terrific queen bee performance by Catherine Oliviere), but by Kennedy’s mother who worked on a school committee with Kayla’s father. “Kennedy will send you an invite on Facebook,” to which her daughter condescending responds, “No one uses Facebook anymore.” Kennedy does send the message – so my mom said to invite you, so this is me doing that – much to Kayla’s dismay. With no way out, she has her father drop her off with his “have a good time,” ringing in her ears.
The party is in full swing and Kayla manages to attract the attention of one boy, Kennedy’s geeky cousin, Gabe (Jake Ryan). Kayla, however, is focused on Aiden (the perfectly cast Luke Prael) who, along with Kennedy, was voted “best eyes.” There’s an Aiden in every class, the slightly mysterious, aloof boy who, although more feminine than masculine, has all the girls lusting after him.
A respite comes for Kayla during “shadowing” when middle schoolers get to follow a high school student around for an entire day. As the middle schoolers walk in single file down a high school hallway, the physical differences between 13 year-olds and older teens is on display. The young adolescents are still children, while seniors are adults. Four years will make all the difference.
Kayla is paired with Olivia (Emily Robinson), an attractive, cool senior who greets her charge with a hug and does everything possible to make the younger girl feel included. That reaching out continues when she calls Kayla and invites her to hang out at the mall, a gesture Kayla quickly accepts. Most of the evening goes well, but a subsequent incident in a car underlines that Kayla is still too innocent and naive to socialize with high school boys.
At 27, Burnham obviously still remembers his middle school years because he gets so much right. Bodily changes, raging hormones, appearance anxiety, exhaustion, irritability, are things we all experienced during the maturation process. He updates the middle school experience by focusing on the preoccupation with cell phones and, tragically, school drills in the event of a shooter. But even if your middle school years are decades in the past, something in Eighth Grade will trigger memories.
Photos by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24
Charlene Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of The Roller-Coaster Years: Raising Your Child Through the Maddening Yet Magical Middle School Years.