Reel Talk: ‘Eighth Grade’ is the coming-of-age story for the age of the internet

Director and writer Bo Burnham delivers a heartfelt comedy in the film “Eighth Grade,” capturing adolescence with sensitivity and compassion. Courtesy: Montclair Film via Wikipedia Commons

It may come as a surprise that one of the most painfully accurate representations of adolescent girlhood I’ve ever seen was, in fact, written and directed by a 28-year-old man — Bo Burnham.

After a successful YouTube stand-up comedy career and three full-length comedy specials, Burnham has become a household name in comedy. His first venture into film brought us the delightfully funny and heartfelt “Eighth Grade,” an achievement as impressive as his comedy career.

The film follows 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she struggles through her final week of eighth grade, facing the standard menu of middle school miseries: mean girls, unrequited crushes and embarrassing dads.

The story is partially narrated through her YouTube channel — a series of self-help videos that cover commendable topics like “being yourself” and “putting yourself out there” — which she casts out into the abyss of the internet, often with little response. But Kayla, who exudes awkwardness, speaks in sentences laden with “like” and “uh” and shifts nervously during nearly every social interaction, often struggling to live by her own advice.

Fisher, who began shooting the film only one week after her own eighth-grade graduation, is so convincingly burdened with self-consciousness that it is often painful to watch her flounder in an effort to form coherent sentences in front of her crush or the intimidating “cool” girls. It is precisely this quality, however, that contributes to her charm and relatability, making it impossible not to root for her.

And while Fisher is excellent on her own, the best moments in the film are scenes shared with her well-intended — but often clueless — dad (Josh Hamilton), in which she exhibits peak teenage irritability. The finest example of this is a hysterical scene in which she throws a banana at him after he walks in on her attempting to give the banana a blowjob.

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Over the course of the movie, which spans a week of real time, little actually happens. Kayla goes to school, attends a pool party, shadows a high schooler and meets friends at the mall. However, Burnham is able to brilliantly elevate mundane daily occurrences into moments of torment or heroism.

By far the best aspect of Burnham’s vision is how compassionate and judgment-free his reflection of adolescence is. He portrays the difficult moments, such as an onslaught of social anxiety in the bathroom at a pool party, with the utmost sensitivity. At the same time he celebrates even the smallest victories, like faking enough confidence to do karaoke in front of a dozen peers, with pride.

I first saw “Eighth Grade” when it was released last summer, but a recent re-watch with one of my friends from middle school left us reflecting on our own adolescence for hours after the film ended. Different aspects of Kayla’s experiences rang true for each of us, as they surely will for every individual who sees it.

Despite the fact that when the runtime is over you’ll feel like you’ve been put through the wringer right alongside Kayla, the movie is ultimately a comforting reminder that whatever unshakable humiliation or anxiety you felt as a middle schooler (or just as a person of any age), you are not alone in feeling that way.

It is a reassurance I wish I had had when I was 13, but feel lucky to have now.

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Rachael Diamond SC ’21 is a philosophy major. She enjoys ranting about movies to anyone who will listen.

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