The Trauma of Eighth Grade

Mark Fields

, Entertainment

Bo Burnham avoids clichés in his directorial debut

Given the traumatic life experiences that regularly unfold there, it’s a small wonder that any of us survive middle school. I suspect that many adults, including yours truly, carry the poignant baggage of those years—bodies that suddenly have become strange and uncomfortable, hormone-fueled social interactions, the prolonged transition from childhood innocence to young adult awareness—well into our adulthood. And the children of today face all of that, with the added distraction of smartphones and social media.

Stand-up comic and YouTube celebrity Bo Burnham makes his feature film debut as writer-director with a remarkable little drama, Eighth Grade, that explores this fertile narrative territory. What is most remarkable about Burnham’s film, however, is the anti-Hollywood (read: realistic) treatment that he gives the subject. The story, the characters, the settings are so startlingly familiar and unglamorous that the film feels fresh and unexpected, and also occasionally painfully close to our own personal recollections.

Eighth Grade charts the final days of Kayla Day’s eighth grade year as she and her classmates are preparing for the move to high school. As played by Elsie Fisher, Kayla is unexceptional: lonely, awkward, struggling with self-esteem, slightly out of step with everyone around her. She bucks herself up with online videos, in which she dispenses trite advice based more on her own shortcomings rather than any well-earned insights into human behavior. She is her own target audience, and sadly, one of the very, very few people who are even aware of her workmanlike efforts.

The only ray of hope on Kayla’s landscape is an effervescent older girl, Olivia (Emily Robinson), whom Kayla shadows at the high school. By her very being, Olivia demonstrates to Kayla that there can be life and happiness after eighth grade. 

The other people floating around Kayla—her helpful but clueless dad (Josh Hamilton), a casually cruel mean-girl classmate (Catherine Oliviere), an equally awkward friend (Jake Ryan)—easily could have come off as clichés if they weren’t so spot on. It also helps that all these characters are played by relatively unknown actors, without the perfect teeth and sunny demeanors of Hollywood stars. They look and feel more real, without the wink-wink coyness of knowing there is a beautiful movie celebrity just waiting to emerge in the movie’s third act.

Burnham clearly understands this world and Kayla. And he captures the zeitgeist of middle school with all its moment-to-moment indignities and fleeting grace notes. At times, I felt myself right back there, a sensation that was compelling, if not altogether pleasant. (Incidentally, Burnham notes the unfortunate effect that smartphones have wrought on the teenage landscape. Most of the background figures in this story never look up from their own screens to notice what is happening right in front of them.)

Eighth Grade is not a typical summer movie; there are no special effects, no superheroes, no CGI dinosaurs. But for a bracing bit of reality, and an echo of one’s own ill-at-ease adolescence, the film is a remarkable change of pace.

Also opening in August: The Spy Who Dumped Me, comedy thriller starring Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon, Aug. 3; a family drama about a boy and his robot dog, A.X.L., Aug. 10; the much-anticipated romantic comedy featuring an all-Asian cast, Crazy Rich Asians, Aug. 15; and Juliet, Naked, an off-beat transatlantic romance with Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke, Aug. 17.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.