Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade might just be the most relatable coming-of-age story in decades. The comedian-turned-director’s first outing behind the camera tells the story of an awkward, introverted middle-schooler just trying to make her way in life, with the spectre of high school looming large. Burnham’s focus isn’t on any freaks or geeks, nor is it on some horny teens trying to hook up before prom. He avoids those archetypes and instead zeroes in on an individual experience, proving again that universality can be found in specificity.
At the centre of Burnham’s story is Kayla, whose awkwardness is perfectly portrayed by newcomer Elsie Fisher. She’s a quiet kid who seemingly doesn’t have any friends, spending her time scrolling her Instagram feed or making inspirational YouTube videos for a non-existent audience. After being voted “Most Quiet” in the year-end awards at school, Kayla is on a mission to come out of her shell a little bit and maybe make a couple of friends before high school rolls around.
That sounds simple but of course, as anyone who has lived through adolescence knows, it’s a messy, painful and awkward time. Burnham follows Kayla as she stumbles from one mortifying encounter to the next, each one juggling different tones and emotions. When Kayla tries to talk to her airheaded crush, for example, it’s cringeworthy but still funny. When she finds herself in the back of a car with a high school kid trying to coax her into taking her shirt off, instead of cringing and laughing, we’re genuinely concerned for Kayla. The film’s biggest cringe comes via a pool party scene that Burnham knows is so excruciatingly relatable, he even shoots it like a horror film.
For a first time director, Burnham shows an exceptional knack for managing tone to the point that none of these shifts ever feel jarring. He has the confidence in not only his own writing but in Fisher’s pitch perfect central performance to switch seamlessly from laughter to tears, to embarrassment or jeopardy and all of it feels genuine and honest. By the time Eighth Grade slows down for a tender scene between Kayla and her single father – played with great warmth by Josh Hamilton – it’s clear this is a special film that taps into not just the nuances of teenage life, but the nuances of life in general. In exploring Kayla’s life, Burnham uncovers the embarrassment and shame and self-doubt that we all experience at some point in our life, and articulates it with a cool wit and unfaltering empathy.