Bo Burnham is a stand-up comic with a distinct style. Semi-musical, semi-poetic, always frantic and unpausing, he skewers media and self-reflexively dissects the public perception of artistry. “Art is dead,” he sings in one song. “Some people think you’re funny / how do we get those people’s money?” His seemingly cynical take on the entertainment industry is curbed by his indictment of self. He implicates himself—“My drug’s attention / I am an addict / but I get paid to indulge in my habit”—in order to subvert the creator-as-god mentality.
Some of the conversation around Eighth Grade, Burnham’s debut as a feature film director, is about the surprisingly sensitive way by which a man in his late 20s captures the awkward stage of adolescence that eighth grade is for a young girl.
But it isn’t a huge surprise, as Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), the eighth grader in question in the film, has similar creative passions as Burnham. Burnham first gained notoriety on Youtube, which is where Kayla posts the self-help videos that we see and hear throughout the film. The ability for people to express themselves on the internet connects the creator and his protagonist creation, even though the two exist online in different time periods.
In a sense, Burnham is commenting on this rapidly shifting internet landscape. In one scene, a high school boy is amazed at Kayla’s access to social media just as a grandparent would wax melancholic about days gone by when phones had cords. The only difference is that the age disparity between technological generations is getting increasingly smaller.
There isn’t a maliciousness or condescension in this depiction of contemporary media in motion, however. Burnham shows the internet landscape with an earnestness, because we are seeing it through the eyes of someone who was born within it. This is to say that we quite literally see it through her eyes, in that whenever we see the internet the reflection of Kayla’s eye is always behind the scrolling stream of content.
In this way, there is a timeliness to the film that could be destined to become dated over the years. All the same, the humanity and honesty in Burnham’s vision of Kayla is universal. It is so easy to identify with Kayla, to sympathize with her, and to fall in love with Elsie Fisher’s performance.
Fisher is able to wholly embody Kayla. She doesn’t talk a lot in view of her classmates, and when she does it is rarely eloquent. When she speaks into her webcam, there are also stutters and false starts, but she also exudes a sense of confidence. Over the course of the film, the two slightly different personalities blend together, but it never comes across as a blatant performance shift. Fisher slowly molds Kayla over the course of scenes, reacting and changing based on formative moments while also cuing us into unsaid nuances of her character.
Josh Hamilton, who plays Kayla’s father, also gives a compelling performance. His paternal figure is quirky and dorky, but he also shows a desire to connect with Kayla. At the same time, he does not want to invade her life. What results from this is a performance that is not big or overly sentimental, yet it blooms in a single, show-stopping scene.
There is nothing extravagant or ambitious in Burnham’s direction, but he does use every opportunity to paint a portrait of modern, suburban adolescence that is realistic yet cinematic. Early on, there are many visual jokes. They are not commented on, but are simply allowed to exist in this space as normal occurrences. An uncomfortable, trying-to-be-hip health class video presentation. An orchestra teacher sporting a rat-tail haircut. An eighth grade boy flexing biceps that he doesn’t have. And so on.
Not everything about the film is polished. In particular, the score and soundtrack are overbearing. The loud flourishes of music are used too often, and they are pushing us toward emotional responses that we are already drawn to. This becomes distracting, especially since the quietest moments of the film are often the most powerful.
Aside from the minor nitpicks, though, Eighth Grade is a remarkable achievement for first-time director Bo Burnham. It is a similarly remarkable achievement for Fisher.
At the end of “Art is Dead,” Burnham sings: “I am an artist / but I’m just a kid / and maybe I’ll grow out of it.” Kayla, and we can see evidence of this in the time capsule recordings that she makes for herself, is a fully-rounded individual who will grow and change over time. We can easily put ourselves in her shoes, because she’s just a kid who will someday grow out of it.
Burnham’s careful direction and Fisher’s breakout performance allow us to remember how life, both in childhood and adulthood, is defined by growing out of our old selves and forming anew as we experience the world. At the same time, Burnham is still an artist. He has grown as one, but he hasn’t grown out of it. We leave Eighth Grade with the belief that Kayla will grow and thrive without ever losing sight of her past.
This is such a simple concept, but Eighth Grade illustrates it with profoundly elegant precision.
Eighth Grade: A-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)