Written and Directed by Bo Burnham
Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Fred Hechinger
One of the prevailing thoughts of my growth through being a father has been the desire to somehow transform into the psyche of my girls during the most crucial moments of their youth. This way I could be there, giving them a virtual hug when they need it. I guide them to find the truth of living. What’s worth fretting over (not calculus and certainly not boys right now) and how to understand the passage of time gives you perspective they just don’t have presently. Somehow trying to teach the kids how to make choices has been superseded by the desire to affect those choices for them.
Doing this, of course would rob them of crucial opportunities to pick up this information on their own respective journeys. So I am limited to just crossing my fingers, asking questions that come across as lectures, and then having them storm off as they hyperventilate, telling me it’s a different era that I can’t possibly understand.
Much of Eighth Grade shows kids interacting with their phones and soliciting the internet in search of ways to make contact. Influencers presented in the form of instagram and youtube posters have much more to do with providing guidance than parents do as they pick them up from school, cross paths with them through the kitchen, or go to their door to say goodnight.
Kayla Day (Fisher) even sends her own messages in bottle out to the sea of the internet, in the form of self help videos meant to raise her confidence as much as the few viewers that might happen by. Our heart bends as we feel doubt sweep through her while she musters up the energy to push through the strange behavior of her classmates along with the unrelenting questions she has about her own worth.
We know she means the world to her single father (Hamilton), even if he is as much a helpless viewer of Kayla as anyone watching the screen. He’s just feet away from her, suffering with her, but he might as well be 1000 miles away for all the good his efforts to communicate produce.
As she moves through her own life, she feels helpless, but she forces herself to move on towards each subsequent encounter. There are things that her senses are very much attuned for, like the sneer of the bad boy or the graceful way she handles rudeness of classmates. There are other things which she just plain misses, like the very subtle way the cousin of one of the rude classmates awkwardly tips his hand.
That we see these things and Kayla does not is a tribute to the skill with which Burnham has crafted this narrative. I cannot attest to how accurate the portrayal is from the perspective of a teenage girl. I can only say as the father of two he’s done a magnificent job of showing us – rather than telling us – how it feels.
There is an incredible intelligence to Eighth Grade that most filmmakers find impossible to portray. It doesn’t shirk from the uncomfortable truths, like the digital transfixation of Generation Z. There are no superficial cliques and groups of children pitting themselves against one another in a quest for Alpha through Omega. Instead, the children seem like fellow passengers on a long trip in the back of the station wagon of life as they flit through posts giving approval in the form of likes and clicks. There is no obvious mean gestures, just the cold oblivion of not being recognized.
Burnham doesn’t wallow in the mire, however. Kayla is given opportunities that are like a light at the end of the tunnel. There is a scene when she prays for one such moment, even at the risk of trading that one day for many other miserable days. These are bargains many of us have made, no matter the era.
It took me a long time to finally watch this film, mainly because I attempted to get my kids to watch it with me. Neither of them took me up on the offer, one thought it couldn’t be worth watching if I thought it was good. They other one is not in the head space to see another person battling to feel good about herself.
Watching the film by myself, I felt the twinge of embarrassment a few times. Even more, I felt the sting of tears. By the time Kayla finally gives her father a chance to occupy the same headspace, all I wanted to do is remind my girls how much I loved them, no matter what.
Fisher is incredible in giving us a liferaft to drift along, through her life. She gives a most vulnerable performance without slipping into maudlin territory. The subtle nuance between the 6th Grade and the 8th Grade Kayla speaking to their future selves could have unraveled the film in the hands of a lesser performer. That she and the film were not nominated for Oscar is not a surprise at this point. It’s still a disappointment.
This is one of the best films of the year. It’s one everybody should see.
(***** out of *****)