Eighth Grade (2018) Plot
Meet Kayla, a 13-year-old girl who hosts her own Youtube series called “Kayla’s Korner.” In her videos, she shares advice with her imaginary audience of fellow teenagers. From topics like “Being Yourself” to “Putting Yourself Out There,” Kayla tries her best to give pep-talks, even though she often stumbles over her words and constantly glances at her notes. Unfortunately, her videos don’t seem to be gaining much popularity, as indicated by the low number of subscribers.
“Eighth Grade,” the remarkable debut film by Bo Burnham, a talented writer-director and standup comedian, starts with one of Kayla’s videos. It’s so authentic and painfully relatable that you might think it’s improvised or found footage. But it’s not. Elsie Fisher, a remarkable 13-year-old actress herself, portrays Kayla with such authenticity, capturing the challenges and emotions of being in her own shoes. Kayla covers up her acne and applies heavy eyeliner in an attempt to present herself differently in her videos. When we see the reality of her life, these videos take on a deeper meaning. It’s both tragic and hopeful to witness a young girl trying to understand her own experiences by positioning herself as an expert and helper to others.
Kayla lives with her father, played by Josh Hamilton, and the absence of her mother isn’t fully explained until later in the film. Her dad struggles to connect with his teenage daughter, who seems determined to push him away. He embarrasses her with his attempts at conversation, like asking if she’s excited about high school or complimenting her videos. Kayla, without any real friends, develops a massive crush on the confident Aiden and admires Kennedy, the popular girl at school.
Bo Burnham understands that nothing is more terrifying than being a shy eighth grader, especially when attending a birthday party hosted by the most popular kid in school. In a scene reminiscent of a horror movie, Kayla stands alone by the sliding glass doors, wearing a lime-green bathing suit, hunching her shoulders and gazing at her classmates having fun. Burnham skillfully pulls the camera back while haunting electronic music intensifies, emphasizing Kayla’s isolation. These stylistic choices throughout the film allow us to empathize deeply with Kayla, as every social interaction becomes emotionally charged.
“Eighth Grade” subtly comments on what it’s like to be a teenager today. It explores the constant use of the internet, the pressure to maintain a flawless image on platforms like Instagram, and the expectation of always appearing fabulous and okay. Burnham handles these themes with humor and lightness, avoiding lecturing the audience. For example, there’s an overhead shot of a school assembly where hundreds of students clutch their phones. In a chilling sequence, the students undergo a lockdown drill, hiding under their desks while still glued to their phones. Burnham immerses us in this world, highlighting both the disconnection caused by social media and its potential to connect people. After spending a day shadowing a friendly high school student named Olivia, Kayla gathers the courage to call and thank her, leading to a newfound friendship.
However, darker moments also arise. An encounter with an older boy who pressures her to play Truth or Dare in his car reminds us how young and vulnerable Kayla truly is. While she has intense feelings for Aiden, she hasn’t yet figured out how to act on them. Her father tries to give her space but remains concerned about her well-being. His worry causes him to hover, which Kayla desperately wants to escape from. In a later scene, Kayla asks her father if he’s sad to have her as a daughter, shocking him with her self-perception and revealing her deep insecurities.
“Eighth Grade” remains firmly grounded in the reality of middle school, almost feeling like a collective flashback to that period. The film cast real middle-schoolers, accurately capturing the stark difference between a 16-year-old and a 13-year-old, a distinction often overlooked in movies. The struggles of teenagers have been explored in cinema, but portraying the experiences of middle school kids presents a greater challenge. Eighth graders still retain some childishness, but their bodies undergo rapid changes, creating a mix of self-doubt, hormonal surges, and irritability. When the middle schoolers walk through the high school for a “shadow” day, the older students lining the hallways appear like adults in comparison.
Burnham captures the authentic way middle-schoolers speak, stumbling over their words, repeating themselves, and attempting to sound older while occasionally reverting back to their youthful language. When Kayla compliments Kennedy on her shirt, she awkwardly adds, “I have a shirt too.” Kennedy’s disinterested gaze and desire to return to her phone say it all. When the Truth or Dare boy says something suggestive, Kayla, anxious and confused, mutters to herself, “Okay,” but it comes out as “O-kee…” Elsie Fisher’s actual age contributes to the film’s realism. Her rare smiles seem to almost crack her face, and the overwhelming joy can push her towards a panic attack. She is in the process of discovering her true self, and her father’s loving concern reflects the audience’s own anxieties. However, “Eighth Grade” isn’t primarily focused on the plot but rather on capturing the essence of being thirteen. Middle school can be tough, and everyone knows it. It’s a necessary stage of life, but while you’re in it, it feels like it will never end. Try telling a 13-year-old that “This too shall pass.”
Bo Burnham, who began his career as a teenager making comedy videos on YouTube, is only 27 years old. He respects where Kayla and others her age are at in life. There is no condescension in “Eighth Grade,” only a bold and empathetic attempt to understand and represent the experiences of young adolescents through humor and sincerity.
Eighth Grade (2018) Cast
- Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day
- Josh Hamilton as Mark Day
- Emily Robinson as Olivia
- Catherine Oliviere as Kennedy Graves
- Jake Ryan as Gabe
- Luke Prael as Aiden Wilson
- Daniel Zolghadri as Riley
- Fred Hechinger as Trevor
- Imani Lewis as Aniyah
Eighth Grade (2018) Review
This movie truly captures the terrifying reality of being in 8th grade, where parents’ best intentions often fall short in providing solace. Elsie Fisher’s portrayal of the main character, Kayla, is masterful, showcasing the multifaceted nature of a teenager grappling with social awkwardness, loneliness, the quest for acceptance, the desire to fit in, and the complexities of sexual longing. Fisher’s perfect casting as a teenage girl raised by a single father, without siblings, battling bad skin, an imperfect body, and endearingly crooked teeth adds an extra layer of authenticity to her character. Throughout the film, Kayla’s character gradually unfolds, allowing the audience to step into her shoes, feel her social anxiety, and empathize with her longing for a sense of belonging.
The film’s subject matter is timeless and universally relatable, reminding viewers of all ages that social groups form and establish standards of what’s considered “cool.” Each of us, at some point in our youth, inexperienced and naive, faced the dilemma of deciding how much we were willing to compromise to gain entry into that fickle club of popular kids.
Elsie’s portrayal of vulnerability is painfully raw as she desperately tries to impress, fabricates exaggerated sexual experiences, dismisses her father’s clumsy attempts to connect, and creates self-improvement videos for social media.
Overall, this film delicately and honestly portrays the emotions and struggles of an eighth-grade girl, resonating with anyone who has experienced or witnessed similar challenges.
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