Midway through Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, our 13-year-old heroine Kayla (Elsie Fischer) is invited to a birthday pool party by the mother of classmate Kennedy, despite the too-cool girl’s protestations. Of all the stress-inducing phrases in the English language, “pool party” may be the most casually cruel. Kayla, kind and bright but self-conscious and friendless, is visibly terrified by the idea of having to don a swimsuit and play games with people who don’t even register that she exists. On the day of the party, Kayla paces around Kennedy’s bathroom, breathing heavily and barely suppressing a panic attack.
On a fundamental level, Eighth Grade is a movie about this oppressive anxiety. Not always in the clinical sense, although the film is sharply critical about the way the internet fucks with our brains and shapes our mental health, but in the immediate, everyday way that plagues so many of our young adulthoods—and current lives. The world becomes so small, and every minute problem so insurmountably large, that it feels like there will never be an escape. While Burnham’s debut feature isn’t the first film to tackle the infinite cruelty of middle school or the age-old struggle to fit in, Eighth Grade does so with such raw honesty, style and empathy for its subject in the internet age, it feels entirely radical.
The film follows Kayla throughout her last week of eighth grade, as she prepares to move onto high school and the new challenges it will bring. But at the moment, making it through the day can be challenge enough. Living with her doting, awkward single father Mark (Josh Hamilton), Kayla spends most of her time with her head down and her shoulders hunched, either scrolling through her phone or avoiding eye contact in shyness. She’s not bullied, per se, but simply ignored, an imperfect wallflower without the money or gymnast body or Instagram star skin of her more sophisticated peers. While typically guarded and quiet, Kayla comes alive when making inspirational YouTube videos, with titles like “Being Yourself,” “Putting Yourself Out There” and “Being Confident.” Filmed against a makeshift backdrop in her bedroom, these videos are full of platitudes, pep-talk and flat-out lies about Kayla’s own life and personality. She says she hopes they’re helping someone “out there,” but we can see she’s talking to herself more than anyone else.
Burnham masterfully crafts the film’s oppressive anxiety in every close-up, most often on Kayla’s face lit by a screen, surrounded otherwise by total darkness. When the Timothée Chalamet wannabe she’s crushing on walks by in class, the whole world becomes nothing but his face set to the pounding electronica of Anna Meredith, whose compositions score the film. Later, the two huddle together under classroom desks, scrolling through their phones, their private bubbles intersecting momentarily. Burnham’s frequent use of close-up, slo-mo and wall-of-sound scoring can feel exhausting at times, but they create a near-constant intensity that cleverly mimics the way Kayla experiences her world. If you’re tired after 90 minutes of middle school, how do you think she feels?
Although the story of a young woman struggling to keep her self afloat in the modern hellscape of iPhones and social media may seem like a major departure from Burnham’s stand-up comedy, Eighth Grade is exactly the kind of film you would expect him to make, and not just because he began his career as a young YouTube star making videos in his bedroom. Beneath his wordplay, irony and dirtier-than-dirty jokes, there has always been a sharp undercurrent of sadness and anxiety. Eighth Grade is pulsing with the same darkly comic energy, and there are many moments that elicit laughs followed by reflexive cringing. Not because they mock the marginalized or make light of tragedy, but because they point to the distorted priorities of youth and the fucked-up truths of American society today. In one scene, a school teacher dressed in riot gear ambles down a hallway, aiming his fake gun at students lining the walls and nonchalantly saying “bang” as they fall to the ground in mock-injury. Throughout the exercise, students gossip about boys and mock their teacher. If anyone could get laughs out of a school shooting drill and still make it work emotionally, it’s Bo Burnham.
The film simply wouldn’t work without the talents of newcomer Elsie Fischer, who is simultaneously capable of carrying every scene as a lead and demonstrating the authentic vulnerability necessary to make us care, cheer, cringe, and cry for Kayla. Although minor, Josh Hamilton is also wonderful as her father, and delivers a tear-jerking, Call Me By Your Name-level monologue near the film’s close.
Although Eighth Grade does allow for some catharsis following an onslaught of small humiliations and awkward encounters, it first tests the audience’s capacity for dread with a scene that hints at the possibility of looming sexual violence. It unfolds like a horror movie, the audience knowing more than Kayla, and Kayla still suspecting more than she dares express. It’s beyond painful to watch, but an essential encapsulation of the high-stakes environment in which Kayla and her peers are living. She may seem melodramatic, or her problems may seem imagined or her priorities out of order, but Kayla faces real harm in a society that’s completely distorted her sense of self.
The intensity of Eighth Grade may discourage repeat trips to the theater, but its honesty and power make it essential viewing. Bo Burnham has tapped into something scarily true about the anxious times we’re living in, and it’s about time we listen.