The jungle of middle school is given a brutal raking over in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, an acutely, wincingly brilliant slice of pre-teen observation. No matter that this is set in America, or that if you’re watching this, you’re likely to be from a different generation to the film’s young protagonist, Kayla (Elsie Fisher)… you will instantly relate to this story. Friendship, popularity and the need for acceptance are topics within which we can all find recognition.
Here, Kayla is a shy girl approaching her last days of eighth grade in a school in New York state. She wants to be liked, to be heard… she has no desire to be an outsider. In her bedroom, she spends her free time making YouTube videos in which she waxes lyrical on life, the universe and everything, always signing off with the phrase “Gucci!” They make you cringe a little, but they come from the heart – something you could say for this entire movie.
Kayla lives with her father Mark (Josh Hamilton), who tries his best to communicate with his daughter, and it’s refreshing to see a parent-child relationship that isn’t angst-ridden or volatile. Kayla wants to be with the popular girls at school, and she gets her chance when fellow pupil Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) throws a pool party. Except that she’s only been invited because Kennedy’s mother (Missy Yager) has taken a shine to Kayla’s Dad. Watching Kayla inch her way into the pool, ignored by her peers, is one of the most painful things you’ll see in film this year.
Some critics have referenced Todd Solondz’s high school yarn Welcome To The Dollhouse in connection with Eighth Grade. In truth, Burnham’s film has a much sweeter heart despite the fact Kayla lives in the social media age where cruelty can swiftly go viral. It does express succinctly just how dangerous our need for validation in the digital realm is, and how it warps impressionable minds, but Eighth Grade is never a film that relishes in discomfort for the characters.
At the centre is the brilliant Fisher – who won a Golden Globe nomination for her performance and was sadly overlooked at the Oscars. Together with former comedian Burnham, she’s created a wonderfully believable character, the cadence and slang of youth speak perfectly captured. Her awkward friendship with Gabe (Jake Ryan), the one spark in her otherwise trying existence, is also perfectly realised in a work that deserves its place amongst the finest films ever made about being young.
Eighth Grade opens on 26 April. For more details, click here.