Bo Burnham’s comedy has always had an introspective raw edge that manages to break through the surreal barrier he builds. His debut feature Eighth Grade doesn’t bother with such protective borders, instead delivering an account of a thirteen-year-old girl struggling with her place in the world as she approaches high school. Through reference to his own experience as a YouTuber Bo has crafted a modern take on the coming of age genre that is simultaneously accessible and familiar, while using challenging concepts and creative presentation to deliver an uncompromising presentation of adolescent insecurities.
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is fast approaching the end of Seventh Grade and is happy in her reclusive ways, choosing to focus her energy upon YouTube videos about what it means to overcome the challenges of youth before fully encountering them. The move from Seventh to Eighth Grade is a momentous shift from elementary school to high school, where social standings are reset and the chance for reinvention looms. An attractive prospect for Kayla, who had just been voted as “most quiet” in her school’s end of year awards. Her progression into finding her social circle beginning as a series of burgeoningly cringe worthy moments that include a pool party masterfully directed as a horror film, before transforming into something equal parts harrowing and endearing.
For a first-time director there’s an incredibly nuanced delivery within Eighth Grade’s story. The film isn’t afraid of showing the blemishes that punctuate teenage years, in uncompromising detail. Whether it’s the relief of spending nights scrolling endlessly through social media (soundtracked by Enya’s Oricono Flow which Burnham claims sounds like the internet), a moment of terror with a predatory older boy, or an emotive conversation with her single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) every emotional cue landing perfectly. A lot of this is because we see people like Kayla every day, there is no attempt to airbrush her presentation- a trend which Bo Burnham has derided as disgusting. Eighth Grade is atypical to the tropes we’ve seen in this genre entirely and is stronger for it.
There is no overarching romantic plot within the film, instead we follow Kayla through her discovery of self-confidence. Her YouTube videos make a fascinating linking device for this, her composure at her high and low points drastically changing and raising interesting questions regarding the current generation’s attitudes toward social media usage. A topic Bo Burnham has a full authority to talk on, given his prestige as a Youtuber in the early 2000s before making a name for himself. There are moments of incidental dialogue about when certain characters got social media, that feel a little too on the nose but mostly the ever-present nature of technology throughout the film is a subtle little jab at a generation hooked to screens. A humanist journey blocked by peers attached to an array of screens. And while it may be easy to argue that this is entirely indicative of a modern generation, there is enough relatable humour regarding adolescence and the awkward nature of formative years to cross all age groups.
Eighth Grade is an incredibly competent piece of work, not triumphant or cruel but easily connectable because of this. Elsie Fisher’s career is likely to take off after this, as is Bo Burnhams’ as a director. Coming of age films are easy to disregard as sensationalist, hyperbolic examinations of youth as presented in John Hughes pictures (great as they are), but Eighth Grade has shaken up the formula with something heartfelt and understated.