Movie Review: Eighth Grade (2018)
I spent more time covering my eyes during this movie than I do during most horror movies. That’s a testament to the accuracy writer-director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher bring to the project. Anyone who’s been through it knows: eighth grade is like a horror movie.
Fisher plays Kayla, a girl living in two worlds: the hallways of junior high, through which she slinks, hoping no one will talk to her, praying someone will; and the online/social media world, where she acts confident and posts self-help videos to not-many followers. In her videos, she gives advice such as be yourself, which she clarifies as “Like, not changing yourself to impress someone else.” Then she spends much of the rest of the movie not following her own advice.
There’s not a false note in Fisher’s performance. She’s amazing and heartbreaking.
It’s the last week of eighth grade, and Kayla’s view of her real-world self is upended—or her worst fears realized—when during auditorium it’s announced that she’s been voted “quietest.” She’s mortified (quietly), but becomes determined to upend that image. She makes an effort. That’s part of the horror: the earnest effort to put herself out there. Most of us know where earnest efforts—particularly in junior high—lead.
Is the pool party first? The mom of the cool girl in school invites her to the cool girl’s pool party, and Elsie decides to make her determined stand in this most awkward of situations: in a green bathing suit. It’s an indelible scene. She arrives late, changes inside, then makes her slow, slouched, painful way through the happy throngs playing in the sun. We’re relieved when she finally makes it all the way into the water. There’s almost a collective sigh from the audience. Even better: a goofy kid, Gabe (Jake Ryan), begins to talk to her, so she’s not alone. But of course she’s not interested in the goofy kid. She’s interested in Aiden (Luke Prael), who has sleek eyes, tousled hair, and a cool demeanor that’s probably hiding not much.
We get an endearing scene. At night, in bed with her smartphone, she visits Aiden’s Instagram page, closes her eyes and kisses one of his selfies. At this point, Dad (Josh Hamilton), walks into the bedroom and in a panic she tosses the smartphone across the room, then yells at him. When she recovers it, the screen is cracked. It’s like a girl version of a Portnoy scene.
We also get an icy scene. During a classroom test, Kayla sneaks over to Aiden—literally crawling on the ground—to deliver a message, and flirt, and pretend to be more experienced sexually than she is. She winds up bragging about things she doesn’t know about. His eyes light up. We want to shout at the screen: RUN!
Thankfully, that goes nowhere. Much of the movie goes nowhere. It’s episodic. The movement forward is in starts and stops. We, and she, anticipate disasters that never happen. At the pool party, she sings karaoke, but it seems to go fine. She’s given a high school mentor, like all the eighth graders, and hers isn’t an awful person—like, say, Parker Posey in “Dazed & Confused”—but nice and nurturing. The girl’s one mistake—after a meet-up at the mall with other high schoolers—is getting dropped off before Kayla. That allows a high school boy to get weirdly creepy. Thankfully, that goes nowhere, too.
Burnham, who made his name via YouTube, has an overt message in the movie: get off social media; go offline. But his subtler message is the better one. Every scene has the potential for disaster, but it never arrives. You put yourself out there, disasters generally don’t befall you. Hell, most people don’t notice or care. Which, in eighth grade, can be a huge positive.
Some of the jokes are OK but seem like retread “Fast Times” and/or “Simpsons” bits. Kayla looks around at her peers and sees dudes sniffing markers, girls dealing with retainers. The cool girls are vapid. Instead of “Fuzzy Bunny,” the narrator for the hip-new sex-ed video says, “It’s gonna be lit.” The vice-principal dabs, but he seems self-aware doing it. He’s the older dude doing it as a joke on himself. He was on screen for seconds and I liked him immediately.
Throughout, there’s small victories. By the end, Kayla is beginning to find her voice, beginning to find her peers—including Gabe—and beginning to think the self-help videos aren’t helping her self much. It’s a great slice-of-life. Kudos to Burnham for making it.