Eighth Grade is a brutal yet loving confrontation on adolescent misery

Bo Burnham’s film debut is an undeniable triumph

Photo courtesy of A24

By: Kate Olivares, Peak Associate

This review contains no spoilers!

It’s perhaps the biggest cliché to say grade eight sucks. But unlike so few works of art, Bo Burnham’s breakout film not only chooses to not only deconstruct its unique pain, but also dares to make others experience it all over again.

      Eighth Grade follows 13-year-old Kayla Day as she maneuvers her last week in junior high,  dealing with anxiety, insecurity, and an intense desperation to belong. What results is a generous dose of skin-crawling second-hand embarrassment scene after scene as the film forces the audience to relive the most awkward, feverishly-repressed memories puberty entails. My commitment to avoiding spoilers withholds me from describing such events in the story, but you have my word: they are agonizing.

     As a devout critic of cringe humour, I am amazed by how Burnham uses it in this film. Cringe humour is often used to create a two-dimensional punchline to elicit an easy laugh, but here, the cringe is not cynical or cheap, but empathetic and raw. By making Kayla such a well-rounded character, the embarrassment we experience with her becomes an extension of our own adolescent identity: our skin crawls not because we despise her, but because we are her. Unlike cringing at Michael Scott’s idiocy, we shy away from her actions out of an intense connection to what she feels. The choice to provoke discomfort is the basis of the film’s emotional core: it is brutal and uncompromising, yet compassionate and kind. This achievement lies with the movie’s heart and soul, actress Elsie Fisher. Fisher beautifully portrays a girl exhausted with her world, but who remains unwaveringly kind. While the intimate relationship the audience builds with Kayla makes it painful to see her experience her turmoil with school, it also makes Kayla experiencing her joys an even more rewarding experience to watch.

     Social media is an inevitable aspect of any modern portrayal of eighth grade. As Kayla diligently scrolls through today’s various media platforms, trying to break out of her shell on her own terms, it brings up a really interesting dynamic between performing online and anxiety. More specifically, the double consciousness most teens bear through heavy social media use: are these platforms a tool, or a detriment for shy teens? Eighth Grade understands that kids can be desperate to express themselves even though they have no idea who their own “self” may be — and portraying this inherent contradiction in social media with such nuance, and such care, helps make Eighth Grade’s script so effective.

     For fans of Burnham’s work, it’s a remarkable thing to watch him extend his trademark self-awareness past his own consciousness, and apply it to this remarkable protagonist. Despite the film’s aforementioned challenges to to the human condition — or perhaps because of it — Eighth Grade is a hilarious delight. The film is a soul-healing gem among the barrage of summer blockbusters. It encourages you to feel, to empathize, and forgive your 13-year-old self for trying so desperately to be a human being.