Written & Directed by Bo Burnham
I am a big fan of Mike Birbiglia’s two films Sleepwalk with Me and Don’t Think Twice. To some that may be surprising that a stand-up comedian is capable of making really good movies, especially one’s not only as funny as those two films, but also as dramatically effective. I’ve seen Birbiglia multiple times live and he is a wonderful storyteller, so to those who know his stand-up, perhaps his directorial ability is not all that surprising. Last year’s The Big Sick by comedian Kumail Nanjiani is further proof that stand-up comedians are more than capable storytellers who blend real life drama to win a laugh. Real life is often the funniest topic, because if we can’t laugh at reality, we may all be doomed. Enter Bo Burnham, another stand-up comedian, and another directorial debut which proves that perhaps the future of comedic cinema should be left in the hands of those performing stand-up as their day jobs.
Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is a shy eighth grader, ready for the school year to be over so she can look forward to a new, fresh start in high school, where perhaps she will be one of the cool kids instead of the wallflower she is now (she was voted Most Quiet by her class). But in her home life, where she lives with her loving, albeit awkward, single dad (Josh Hamilton), is somewhat different. She has a connection to social media that is not to be broken, spending her nights in bed scrolling through Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, liking everything in sight. She also has a YouTube channel where she posts these self-help videos, tackling a different topic each video. Ironically, these videos seem to coincide with her school life, highlighting everything she knows she should be doing (being herself, exuding confidence, etc.), but which she lacks the courage to actually go out and do.
What is so impressive about Eighth Grade, apart from “oh my god” this is the debut film from a stand up, male comedian!? (which is very impressive), is how damn accurate to life this film is. As I sat in the theater, taking it all in, I was constantly reminded of how real to life this film is. The awkwardness not just of grade school and adolescence, but even of adulthood. Perhaps I just never grew out of that, but I constantly feel those awkward silences, and experience those moments where, for whatever reason, I fail to say or do what I want to say or do. There’s no good explanation for it other than the simple fact that life is hard, especially in this day and age of social media and heightened awareness of how we are perceived by other people. Burnham nails this with this film. Right. on. the. nose. It’s so damn true to life, it can be hard to watch sometimes. Thankfully, Burnham is also able to make light of everything.
Elsie Fisher is a revelation in the lead role as well. This is as much a coming out party for her as an actress as it is for Burnham as a filmmaker. She embodies the character of Kayla so perfectly. She’s bossy and self-confident in front of her dad, ready to be taken as an adult and left alone. But she’s also vulnerable and unsure in those quiet moments by herself. Eighth grade is certainly that seminal moment in growing up where you want to no longer be a kid, or treated like one, while also feeling completely unprepared to be an adult. That crossroads, which crosses over into high school is scary for any kid, and anyone with a semi-normal childhood has probably experienced what Kayla is going through, as she struggles to come out of her shell, to embrace who she is instead of chasing popularity which is often forced and toxic.
I was not only endlessly impressed by Burnham and Fisher’s abilities, but also endlessly entertained by them. There is something to be said for these two that they’re able to take such a delicate subject and experience and not only capture it in its rawest, realest state, but to also make it fun and entertaining. They are able to connect with the audience that many comedies fail to, that many dramas fail to. This is a communal experience for the simple fact that we’ve all been there. There’s no escapism here. We can all relate, but while Eighth Grade shows us some of those terrifying things that happened when we were kids of that age and impression, it also shows us in a very poignant way how great and fun those times were, even if we would never ever in a million years want to ever go through it all again.