In one of the many videos shown from Kayla Day’s Youtube channel, she explains the importance of being yourself and not changing who you are for anyone else. It’s going to be really hard for me to follow that advice in my current situation. You see, one of the things I’m known for is verbosity (ask my colleagues). But in the case of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade I really don’t want to say anything, even though I am bursting at the seams to tell you all of the ways why this movie is incredible, from the writing to the directing to the acting to the everything. Because really, anything I could say is so thoroughly insufficient to convey the humanity and emotional resonance of this film. Further, I risk compromising the impact of a film that should not be explained but experienced. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film quite like this, that quietly demands not just your attention, but your empathy all the way throughout.
The premise is simple: it’s the last week of eighth grade for Kayla Day, played by the prodigious Elsie Fisher. Of the many coming of age films with female leads who feel on the fringes of their respective social group, Fisher is a breath of freaking fresh air with a truly vulnerable and honest portrayal of a teenage girl navigating the modern world with a healthy dependence on social media and a desperate desire for connection. Her dad, Mark, played by Josh Hamilton, also adds some much needed realism to the role of paternal cheerleader, hitting all the expected notes while maintaining a firm level of authenticity and warmth for his character. Having such well-played characters means every scene comes alive to reach out and pull you into their shoes. I’ve never laughed, cried, and cringed so intensely for characters on the screen.
That’s not to exclude the skillful writing and directing by Bo Burnham. This may be his first film filling these roles, but there’s zero traces of amateurism to be found. Each shot is perfectly framed and scored to immerse you more and more into Kayla’s experience and psyche. Burnham has always been known for how cleverly he constructs a space on stage in order to deliver his humour, but in Eighth Grade he lets his emotional intelligence steer the show, putting empathetic connection with the audience as the highest priority. It’s nothing short of masterful.
Eighth Grade may seem like an unlikely offering from a comedian who most recently bemoaned undersized Pringle cans and overly stuffed burritos (all while using autotune), but please don’t let that deter you from taking in this breathtaking achievement. Eighth Grade’s towering triumph is how poignantly and effortlessly it makes you feel all the feels. And Bo Burnham is ideally equipped to deliver this message of dignity and acceptance using his emissary Elsie Fisher. Nadia Bolz-Weber says “Comics tell a truth you can only see from the underside of the psyche. At its best comedy is prophecy and societal dream interpretation.” For those of us who from time to time still feel the paralysis of social anxiety, Bo’s message for us is timely and urgent: you matter and you’re not alone. Message duly received.