For anyone who's ever been or known a 13-year-old girl, Eighth Grade can be a cringe-inducing experience at times. That's not a criticism, since the film's protagonist does plenty of cringing herself. In the movie's opening moments, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) records her latest YouTube video. Although the teen cheerfully dispenses advice about being yourself, she's still a portrait of awkwardness. In between uttering nervous filler words such as "um", "ah", "like" and "you know", Kayla tells her viewers that "being yourself can be hard. And, like, the hard part about being yourself is that it's not always easy". Her nuggets of wisdom couldn't be clumsier, just as her choice of self-help topic couldn't be more standard. But, as she trains her kohl-rimmed eyes on her webcam and desperately tries to convey an air of self-assurance, Kayla is never anything less than earnest and relatable.
Attempting to beam the best version of yourself into the online void while secretly crumbling inside (and barely keeping it together on the outside, to be honest): for most, that's the modern human condition. Starting Eighth Grade with Kayla's gawky, well-meaning, confidence-boosting communique is a smart move on the part of writer-director Bo Burnham, who kicks off his debut movie by showing his audience a version of themselves. He's also playing with something that he knows — not being an adolescent girl, clearly, but rather a youthful YouTuber. Before the filmmaker was earning deserved acclaim for this perceptive and poignant coming-of-age tale (and performing stand-up, starring in a short-lived 2013 MTV sitcom and even popping up on Parks and Recreation before that), he was a 16-year-old uploading his own comic clips to the world.
With Eighth Grade charting Kayla's final week before graduating from middle school to high school, Burnham keeps dabbling with scenarios and themes that are familiar to everyone — current and former teens included. Wanting to disappear into your chair out of sheer embarrassment? Tick. Being out of your element in a social situation, but putting yourself out there anyway? Tick again. Making a connection and feeling like you've finally been seen? The ticks just keep on coming. Going on a strained date, babbling at your crush, rolling your eyes at everything your parents say, and coining your own catchphrases are all covered too. And, because this is a thoroughly 21st-century flick, so is the omnipresence of screens and devices. Kayla hovers over her classmates' Instagram feeds, and tries to connect with her peers as they're glued to their phones. She also ignores her kindly dad (played by a pitch-perfect Josh Hamilton) in favour of her own handset, and covets the rush of dopamine that springs from likes, messages and digital attention.
Teen movies might be as common as Kayla's cracked iPhone, but the best have always ranged beyond the obvious. In the likes of Heathers, Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You and Love, Simon, to name just a few, the genre doesn't just explore the daily reality of an age group caught between childhood and maturity. It also speaks volumes about emotions and behaviour that can linger with us into adulthood, even if we don't want to admit it. While every frame of Burnham's film plunges deep into Kayla's existence, and that of adolescents circa 2018–19, the picture's insights about coping with life feel far more universal. Burnham realises that everyone has felt as anxious, uncertain and out of place as Kayla at some point. He also knows that, more often that we all might like, we still do.
Matching the movie's style to its substance, every aspect of Eighth Grade plants viewers firmly in Kayla's shoes. Visually, the film zooms out from her post-it covered bedroom walls, treating her personal space like a hidden world. It tracks her hesitant footsteps through the school hallways as throngs of other awkward kids gaze her way, and approaches her jittery arrival at a popular girl's pool party like a horror flick. Sound-wise, music drowns out everything else whenever Kayla becomes lost in her own thoughts and feelings — when she's swooning over the hot guy in her grade, for example. Elsewhere, snippets of narration from her YouTube clips act like the inner monologue she wishes she had.
As effective as every narrative beat, probing shot and well-deployed blast of Enya (yes, Enya) proves, Burnham's savviest move is also his most straightforward. Actually casting a teenager in a movie about a teenager is much more rare than it should be, and Eighth Grade wouldn't be the success it is without Golden Globe nominee Fisher as its star. Fourteen years old at the time of shooting back in 2017, she lives and breathes Kayla's reality, partly because she just lived through it off-screen. While the film isn't a documentary, her naturalistic performance makes it an astute and authentic slice of teenage life from start to finish. Fittingly, although Fisher has been acting since 2009 and has everything from TV series Medium to the Despicable Me movies to her name, Burnham found her via an online video.