“Eighth Grade,” the film by first time writer-director Bo Burnham, is not for eighth graders. But if you’re a parent, grandparent, or anyone who cares deeply about the 13 or 14 year-old in your life, this film is for you.
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) has survived middle school and is a week away from her eighth grade graduation. She’s a quiet young woman, shy and reserved in real life but on her YouTube channel (which gets very, very few views) she doles out advice for her peers. The sad thing is, she doesn’t really take her own advice. She’s awkward in her own skin and swimsuit when she’s invited to a birthday/pool party. Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) only invited her because her Mom forced her to. Upon opening Kayla’s gift, Kennedy sneers, “What even is this?” Kayla retreats to an empty room calling her Dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), and begging him to come pick her up.
A bright light in Kayla’s last week of eighth grade is Olivia (Emily Robinson), a high school senior Kayla “shadows” for a day to get a feel for what freshman year will be like. Olivia accepts Kayla for who she is and, unencumbered by peer pressure, Kayla drinks in the attention.
It is rare in film that a director can capture the uncertainty and vulnerability of such a time in a person’s life. At age 13, teen bodies are changing, acne seems inevitable, and a person is beginning to discover who he or she is. Burnham seems to have found the formula because “Eighth Grade” really is a cinematically brilliant slice of what it means to be human and vulnerable. Elsie Fisher captures Kayla’s naiveté and susceptibility with every facial expression, ducking of her head, and quietly voiced word. It’s not difficult to remember one’s own journey through that very awkward period and understand what Kayla is going through.
Having said that, the film can be rough at times as when Kayla finds herself alone with one of Olivia’s high school friends, a boy, who asks her to take off her shirt. Kayla struggles with all the things that are happening to her almost alone. Her Dad, a single parent (Mom left them when Kayla was little), tries his best to relate to her but their communication, or lack thereof, is almost comical at times it’s so bad. It’s not really funny, though, because sitting there in the audience, I wanted to shout out to Mark to talk to her, to make more of an effort to draw her out of herself in order that she could tell him what’s going on in her life.
With the rise in teen suicide over the last decade a disturbing reality in our culture, “Eighth Grade” reinforces how important it is for teens and parents to communicate about everything. If a child is taught from a very young age that it’s normal to talk about anything and everything with their parents, then when the time comes, like in the early teen years, it will be that much easier to talk about the things that really matter so that people like Kayla don’t have to go through the transitions in life feeling alone and misunderstood.
So, even though “Eighth Grade” isn’t actually for eighth graders, your teens will probably be able to identify in some way or other with Kayla and all she faces. The film may provide a way to help them open up to you about the kinds of things teens find it hard to talk to their parents about. By experiencing the film together, you and the teens in your life will have a wonderful opportunity to spend some time talking about those difficult and awkward topics, and hopefully, like Kayla, come out smiling on the other side.