“The topic of today’s video is being yourself.”
“Growing up can be a little bit scary and weird.”
— Kayla Day
Eighth grade was the worst year of my life — I hated everything about it: my shitty peers, my changing body, the high school application process. I never looked back once I got out.
It’s probably no big shock then that my favorite movie taking on the horrors and inequities of middle school is Todd Solondz’s darkly hilarious and biting — yet somehow sympathetic — Welcome to the Dollhouse. Dawn Wiener is a hero of sorts to me (really). With Eighth Grade, writer / director Bo Burnham traverses the same treacherous terrain — he even starts down a similar, cynical path as Solondz. He swiftly takes it somewhere else, though, allowing Eighth Grade to tell its own story.
Young teenager Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), who’s finishing her final week of eighth grade, leads a double life. She posts self-recorded inspirational videos on YouTube, encouraging viewers to do things like be themselves, choose confidence, and put themselves out there to improve their lot in life.
Sadly, she’s nothing like her YouTube persona at school. Kayla is struggling to fit in, discouraged by the classmates she cyberstalks, some of whom she even approaches in person. She has no friends. No one notices her. She wins a “superlative” award — one of those dubious “most whatever” designations voted by peers — for being the quietest girl student. Aiden (Luke Prael), the guy she’s crushing on, wins “best eyes;” her low mumbled “Nice job” doesn’t even register when he walks past her desk to collect his prize (although she eventually gets his attention when she lies about having nude pics on her phone and giving good blowjobs, but that’s another point).
Fair or not, Kayla takes out her anxiety and frustration on her hapless single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton). He doesn’t quite know how to deal with it.
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
After she manages to recover from an anxiety attack at a disastrous pool party, Kayla is paired with Olivia (Emily Robinson), a big sisterly high school senior, to shadow for a day. They hit it off, which Kayla didn’t see coming — nor did I. Olivia invites Kayla out with her friends. Kayla’s sixth grade self emerges to push her toward a light she suddenly sees at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
There’s a lot to like about Eighth Grade, which easily could’ve been another teen movie — comedy or drama — that dredges up everything awful about being a teenager just for the sake of revisiting how awful it can be. Burnham nails the multiple forms that adolescent cruelty takes, but he doesn’t stop there. Instead, he takes his film to a positive place. His tone is never condescending. He doesn’t make light of Kayla’s dilemmas — clearly, they’re matters of life or death to her. He makes them important to us.
It’s a joy watching Kayla figure out that things really do get better — even in the face of a jarringly confusing incident involving one of Olivia’s friends (Daniel Zolghadri). Fisher is perfect in her role, zits and all. She shines especially with the little details — her expressions, her awkward movements, and all her likes, ums, and you-knows. She recalls Dawn Wiener without all the cartoonish flourishes.
It sounds hokey, but you really do want to applaud when Kayla finally gets it, like when she tears into two classmates, mean girls Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and Steph (Nora Mullins), in one totally brilliant scene. Or when she accepts an invitation to hang out with dorky Gabe (Jake Ryan, who amusingly happens to have the same name as Molly Ringwald’s crush in Sixteen Candles) after he strikes up a conversation with her in the pool — and actually follows up with her.
To a degree, Eighth Grade echoes Welcome to the Dollhouse, intentionally or not. One big thing that sets it apart is its rosy ending — it’s hopeful. That’s a very good thing. Gucci!
With Jake Ryan, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Gerald W. Jones, Missy Yager, Shacha Temirov, Greg Crowe, Thomas J O’Reilly, Frank Deal, J. Tucker Smith, Tiffany Grossfeld, David Shih, Trinity Goscinsky-Lynch, Natalie Carter, Kevin R. Free, Deborah Unger, Marguerite Stimpson
(Landmark Century) B