Eighth Grade: A Time Capsule of the Messy Lives of Middle Schoolers
One of the most anticipated feature narratives of the 18th Annual New Hampshire Film Festival was Eighth Grade, the feature film directorial debut of popular comedian, Bo Burnham. Written by Burnham and produced by Eli Bush, Scott Rudin, Christopher Storer, and Lila Yacoub, the film stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla, a thirteen-year-old in her final week of eighth grade. Through Kayla’s story, this comedy-drama presents a story of suburban adolescence and reminds audience of their own awkward preteen years.
In school, Kayla is seen as a shy introvert and even goes so far as to win the eight grade superlative, “Most Quiet” much to her chagrin. But outside of school, Kayla makes videos for her YouTube channel, where she dispenses the kind of advice one would expect from an eighth grader: be confident, don’t be afraid to grow up, put yourself out there. In addition to YouTube, Kayla and her peers are obsessed with other social media platforms and the delicate online culture that surrounds them. In her last week of eighth grade, Kayla seeks to figure out what is next for her and how she will grow and change as she moves on to high school.
As one would expect from Burnham, the film is packed with moments that had the audience laughing and much of the humor comes from the Kayla’s relatable struggles. A pool party becomes a social gauntlet; dinner with her father, played by Josh Hamilton, presents the often confusing question of “Why does my teenage daughter hate me?”; and Kayla’s attempts at impressing her crush had the audience squirming with laughter. Fisher’s portrayal of Kayla, along with the performances of her co-stars Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, and Luke Prael, brought the audience back to the awkward times in their teenage lives. At the time, these seemingly pivotal moments may have made them cry, but now it just makes them laugh.
On the flip side of being a teenager, Kayla’s last week of eight grade is fraught with moments that are crushing to watch. Along with all the funny moments, Burnham is not shy about showing the ugly, messy side of growing up and how hard it can be to be a kid on the cusp of adulthood. But this dichotomy drives home Kayla’s story and allows one to believe her very human story. Eighth Grade presents the story of today’s teen, but Kayla’s struggle to feel confident, fit in, and grow up are timeless.
By Ben Bradbury-Koster