What fresh Hell even is eighth grade? The memory of that year lingers in the psyche of all who lived it, a kind of collective recollection that we all try to bury but refuses to be ignored. The awkwardness, the social ineptitude, the ritualized embarrassment of it all. When we talk about the horrors of middle school, what we’re really talking about is the hell of eighth grade.
It’s almost hard not to ascribe some sort of mythic quality to that particular year of our lives. In some cultures, that would be the year we would be sent out to earn our adulthood. It’s a kind of liminal weigh station, where the strengths of our characters are measured against some unknown qualifier, compared and contrasted against our peers as a form of consecrated indignity. It sucks, which is precisely the reason we celebrate its passing. High school, in comparison, is a fucking breeze.
Eighth Grade remembers all of this about eighth grade, which is part of what makes it such an astounding piece of cinema. Watching the film is like being subjected to a not-so-instant replay of your adolescence, warts and…well, what else is there? Bo Burnham, who led the charge of comedians in the internet era, has created a film that, while completely of its time, speaks to the eighth grader in all of us.
Not bad for his first stab at film. Though written and directed by the comedian, the other major factor that makes Eighth Grade so wonderful is its star, Elsie Fisher. Best known as the voice of Agnes in the Despicable Me series, Fisher is the heart and soul of Eighth Grade, and not just because she’s its star. Hers is a performance miles beyond her 15 years of age. She will stun you, delight you, break your heart, and, most of all, remind you of yourself.
Fisher stars as Kayla, an awkward girl celebrating her final week of eighth grade before moving onto high school. Like many girls her age, she is obsessed with social media and uses her platforms to create inspirational videos to try and help her followers. However, Kayla has a hard time heeding her own advice, and against her desires she remains a quiet, soft spoken, pseudo-outcast as she tries to find a place in her changing world.
Burnham’s script is a masterwork of character and situation. You wouldn’t necessarily think that there was much to be mined from such a limited scope—a single week—but Burnham infuses his tale with anecdotes that feel as though they might have come from your very own repertoire. Over the course of her week, Kayla confronts her past, present, and future in a whirlwind of growth, trying to rectify what she wanted and what she now wants with who she is.
It’s a tricky balancing act that Burnham walks delicately. He balances the drama and comedy beautifully, though each plays within the same awkward realm as his standup. Different audiences will find themselves alternately laughing and cringing as the film builds to its emotional climax. Along the way you can’t help but feel a kind of nostalgia for that year of hell you’d rather not remember.
Fisher, meanwhile, is sheer perfection. She plays Kayla with an astounding confidence for an actress so young, bringing Kayla to life beautifully. Watching her, you often forget you’re watching a performance and not a documentary about life in modern middle school. She gives, quite frankly, one of the best performances of the decade. Watching her, you’ll want nothing more than to hug her, to assure her that it’s all going to be okay, to let her know that you’re proud of everything she’s done and the person she is becoming.
In a way, you’d be doing that to yourself. Caring for Kayla becomes a way to care about your own inner-child, still fraught with fear at the world that surrounds them. It’s impossible not to see yourself in Kayla, even if the world she inhabits is so much different from the world you did at that age. Eighth Grade serves as a reminder for the old and jaded that just because the world has changed it doesn’t mean that the experience has. The world of kids today isn’t that much different from the one we grew up in, as much as we like the pretend otherwise. Eighth Grade forces us to confront that as we come to identify with Kayla, and are reminded of how difficult our lives were in that fateful year. It is, simply, nothing less than stunning.
Eighth Grade is now playing in theaters everywhere.