Growing up, I always thought that by the time I got to high school, I’d look like the girls I saw in the movies. Cher Horwitz from Clueless. Veronica Sawyer from Heathers. Anyone from Cruel Intentions, 10 Things I Hate About You, Bring it On. You get the idea.
To my vast disappointment, it was revealed that our freshman selves are not that different from our 8th grade selves. Our looks can be summed up as a more refined awkwardness, but a distinct awkwardness is present nonetheless.
And that’s just the start of what makes writer-director Bo Burnham’s debut feature, Eighth Grade, such a triumph. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I was looking at kids who actually looked like kids. Playing the lead role of Kayla, Elsie Fisher is adorable — in the most middle school way possible. She has long blonde hair, a smattering of acne, some extra baby fat, and a tendency to draw her eyeliner on a little too thick. I know that girl.
The film opens with Kayla filming a YouTube video – one of many she makes throughout the movie – where she’s giving advice on “how to be yourself”. It’s the perfect way to start the film: insightful in how it exposes Kayla’s clear lack of insight, bittersweet in how it shows how badly she wishes she could take her own advice, and just downright hilarious and endearing. And all of those qualities are present for every scene that follows. There are moments when you don’t know if you want to laugh or cry; shield your eyes or watch the movie three more times on repeat. It’s emotional whiplash, one that everyone can relate to.
One of the scenes that will most speak to moviegoers is when Kayla is pressured to go to a popular girl’s pool party. She shows up in her neon green one piece, arms plastered across her stomach. The second she walks outside, it looks like some version of pubescent hell. It’s an unspoken rule in middle school that she who goes to a pool party must be wearing a bikini. And if you’re not wearing one — well, everyone knows why. In that moment, you’ll be hard pressed to conjure up a lonelier image in your mind.
Looking back as adults, it can sometimes feel like the trials and tribulations we faced growing up were all small things blown out of proportion by a mix of drama and angst. But while watching Eighth Grade, it made me remember how hard it could be to feel comfortable in your own skin, and how that made every moment a little more difficult to navigate. How everything is new, and how scary new experiences could be. Social media and technology play a big role in the events of the film, but it’s in a much more natural and less pointed way than in a movie like Ingrid Goes West. Here, it reminds us that we’re constantly trying to fit in, and how we’re perceived online goes a long way towards how we’re viewed and accepted in the real world. Burnham is remarkably skilled at mixing tones and adding in stylistic touches that keep every moment feeling fresh. The humor (and there’s a lot of it) blends so naturally with the steady emotion that we’re constantly feeling on Kayla’s behalf, and that mix is something of the movie’s secret sauce.
The script is undeniably first rate, but none of this would be possible without the remarkable central performances. Josh Hamilton is delightful as Kayla’s dad, who in typical angry teen style is constantly told not to speak. But in the moments that he does get to be heard, we’re given some of the most purely special moments of the entire film. His facial expressions alone are enough to make us laugh out loud, whether it’s him reacting to an argument with his daughter about how she doesn’t like bananas or trying not to be seen as he’s spying on her at the mall.
As for Fisher, words won’t do her justice. She’s not just the best discovery of the year; she’s the heart and soul of the picture. To be this capable of expressing vulnerability and compassion is a feat in and of itself. But what really takes it to the next level is the fact that she’s not remembering what it was like to be in middle school — she’s playing it out with clear-eyed honesty. Nostalgia’s rose-colored glasses are completely exempt from this performance. To love this movie is to love her. Towards the end, when Kayla’s father sincerely and emphatically tells her, “It’s so easy to love you,” she may not yet fully believe his words. But to us, no truer words have ever been spoken.
This edition of The Latest is sponsored by Miami Charter Bus Company.
A24 is releasing Eighth Grade in South Florida on July 27th. CineClub members had the opportunity to see an early screening of the film three months ago. For more information on how to join CineClub, click here.