As an incurable horror movie fan, I have no problem watching torture, disembowelments, and all other manner of grotesqueries. But no amount of gore could prepare me for the emotional meat grinder that is Eighth Grade. Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is at times nothing less than an endurance test, and I mean that as the best of compliments.
Newcomer Elsie Fisher plays Kayla Day, an awkward thirteen-year-old entering her last week of middle school. Soft-spoken and introverted, Kayla is essentially friendless but finds refuge in her barely-viewed YouTube channel, where she offers her tentative advice on socializing, being yourself, and other topics on which she has no authority. Kayla’s other go-to way of spending her time is indulging her social media addiction, cruising through Instagram, Tumblr, and Facebook with the speed of a seasoned pro. At school, she bears the endless indignities of her final week, and is haunted by freshman year’s looming specter. Meanwhile, her goofy sweetheart of a single father Mark (Josh Hamilton) can do nothing but watch.
And that’s about it, as far as plot goes. Eighth Grade is made up of several small story arcs instead of one big one, and that’s just about right for its naturalistic, week-in-the-life structure. During that week, Kayla pines for a dreamy classmate, shadows at her future high school, broods over a time capsule left by her sixth-grade self, and more. Though this medley of storylines obscures the screenplay’s framework, it’s very much present, and its deft juggling of the different facets of Kayla’s life keeps the movie from ever once becoming boring – as does, of course, its ability to instill mortal terror.
The other reason Eighth Grade is so compelling is its star, Elsie Fisher. With her slightly crooked teeth and smattering of adolescent acne, she looks like a real, well, eighth-grader. But more important than her looks is her absolute immersion in the role, making Kayla’s every verbal tic, facial contortion, and uncomfortable slouch ring true. It’s a fearless, note-perfect performance, and in a better world would be a shoe-in for an Oscar nod early next year.
Thankfully, Burnham’s shrewd screenplay and direction don’t let such a talent go to waste. Eighth Grade steers clear of the shrill comedy and after-school melodrama that frequently accompany its subject matter, and is better – and infinitely more painful – for it. It’s a movie of a thousand small humiliations, each one excruciatingly familiar for anyone who has suffered through the hardships of middle school unpopularity. There are no cartoonishly evil bullies or sadistic pranks here; Eighth Grade finds more than enough agony in the all-too-real trials of early teenhood, from exclusive cliques, to clumsy emerging sexuality, to well-meaning adults who only make things worse. On top of all that, there’s the self-esteem crusher that is social media to contend with, a timely inclusion which only adds to the movie’s horror.
That said, Eighth Grade refuses to slide into misery porn, and its few moments of catharsis are all the more potent for their rarity. Kayla’s impending visit to high school, for example, creates as much anxiety for the audience as it does for her, but the reality of the tour is a relievedly pleasant one, with chipper sophomore Olivia (Emily Robinson) showing her genuine warmth and understanding. Kayla’s father is another bright spot in her life, often the subject of her teenage venting but unceasingly supportive. Hamilton is effortlessly likeable in the role, communicating Mark’s pain of being constantly spurned by his daughter alongside his utter adoration for her. His best scene comes toward the end of the movie, where he’s finally able to put into words – without interruption or dismissal – how much he cares for Kayla.
Somehow, along with its social brutality and emotional resonance, Eighth Grade manages to be devastatingly funny. There’s universal humor to be found in its honest look at middle school life, from adults’ wincingly lame attempts to be hip to Kayla’s bottomless well of endearing social awkwardness, which recalls Paul Rudd’s similarly winning performance in I Love You Man. Burnham, having made his start as a singing YouTuber, shows playful wit in his use of music, like the overpowering dubstep cue that blasts whenever Kayla’s crush struts by. It’s about the movie’s only laugh that doesn’t pass through clenched teeth, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.