Everyone knows that it’s hard to accurately portray adolescence in film. Even the best, most relatable characters of the past 20 years — Enid Coleslaw from Ghost World, Juno MacGuff from Juno, or Lady Bird McPherson from Lady Bird — proclaim their insecurity in impossibly witty dialogue or concise, effective declarations.
Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), the rising high-schooler at the center of Eighth Grade, does sometimes explain herself with confidence and style, but only in front of her laptop camera. In the light of her bedroom lamps, Kayla appears bright eyed and self-assured, looking directly at her unseen audience as she holds forth about being yourself or overcoming shyness.
But when her laptop shuts, the camera of writer/director Bo Burnham finds Kayla as quiet and gawky as any kid you’d find in a real 8th grade classroom, sulking around the periphery of a pool party and struggling to make eye-contact with peers who won’t even look up from their phones. This Kayla doesn’t have any clever one-liners or speeches about her condition. She only has questions and insecurities, something rarely portrayed with this much authenticity and warmth.
The incidents that occur during the last week of Kayla’s middle school career are unremarkable, but Burhnam shows a trip to the mall or high school shadow day (in which the 8th graders spend the day following an assigned high schooler) as the world-shaking events she thinks them to be. The world stops and soaring techno music every time Kayla’s crush Aiden (winner of the male “best eyes” award) looks her way, and the presence of her single dad (Josh Hamilton) during a mall trip with friends constitutes irrecoverable embarrassment.
But as ridiculous as these moments may be, Burnham never allows us to mock Kayla. Not only does it love and sympathize with her through her various foibles, the movie portrays everyone as equally maladroit. Dad makes bad jokes and (at least one) worse parenting decisions, teachers and parents create moments that heighten the kids’ discomfort, and even the “cool kids” make fart noises and stumble over their words.
Neither is the movie weightless, as demonstrated by its portrayal of teen sexuality. There’s definitely comedy in Kayla’s attempts to understand the stuff her classmates gossip about, turning an American Pie gag into something human and sweet. But as boys try to sexualize Kayla, the movie becomes absolutely harrowing, revealing the real danger in what movies have for decades written off as “boys being boys.” The movie may include the most distressing “teens in a car” scene since A24’s other 2018 release Hereditary, but it doesn’t treat the boys as monsters. They’re just people, and as such, they’re held accountable for the way they treat other people.
That willingness to humanize otherwise stock characters makes Eighth Grade so remarkable. Even at its most uncomfortable, the film loves its characters too much to mock them as jokes or dismiss them as villains. It believes that everyone is making it up as they go along, that no one’s graduated to perfection, no matter what grade they’re in.