At the Movies
Portrait of an Adolescent, Contradictions and All
By Noah Gittell
The first thing that stands out about “Eighth Grade” is the acne. Kayla (Elsie Fisher), the film’s 14-year-old protagonist, has bad skin. This is common in middle-schoolers, but it’s downright rare onscreen. The teen-agers of Hollywood may vocally complain about pimples, but their faces are always blemish-free. “Eighth Grade” is all about the blemishes, inside and out.
The winning debut film from stand-up comic Bo Burnham (who wrote and directed) depicts Kayla’s last week of middle school, when the gulf between who she is and who she wants to be seems desperately wide. She’s not an adult yet, but she’s pushing herself to be one right quick. She stumbles over her words and almost never ends up with what she wants. She mostly looks at the ground when she talks. At a pool party, she’s the only one of her friends who still wears a one-piece swimsuit.
The film’s deep empathy for the adolescent experience is a point in its favor, but it sometimes makes the film hard to watch. It’s cringe comedy without the comedy. As the story begins, Kayla has decided to start “putting herself out there” in preparation for high school. She tries to make friends with some popular girls and has a plan to turn a cute boy into her boyfriend. But she’s not Ferris Bueller or Cher from “Clueless”, adorably scheming her way in and out of trouble. She’s going to fail, and it’s going to hurt.
That’s essentially the entire story of “Eighth Grade”. There is no homecoming dance or big game to serve as a climax. The film even skips her graduation ceremony, wisely and tellingly showing us only the moments just before and just after. Without such externalities to drive the plot, the film succeeds almost entirely on the strength of its lead performance. Fisher is simply remarkable, maneuvering Kayla’s contradictions (she’s shy at school, but makes self-help YouTube videos at home) with such skill that you never catch her acting. It’s the first time in a long time you’ll look at the screen and see someone who really looks, sounds, and feels like a teen-ager. It’s simply a life being lived.
It’s the rare coming-of-age story that carries not a whiff of nostalgia. All movies are made by adults who will naturally see their teen-age years as a story of personal triumph and obstacles bested. They’re told in the past tense, but “Eighth Grade” is told in the present. Adults in the audience may know that Kayla’s courage amidst emotional pain is laying the groundwork for future happiness, but Kayla herself has no idea, and the film stays painfully close to her perspective.
Without the benefit of hindsight, Kayla’s survival – in eighth grade, high school, and even in life – is not assured, and every bit of interpersonal drama, like when her father conspicuously spies on her first outing at the mall with some new friends, carries life and death stakes. Remember that? This is what adolescence feels like, and this is what we worked hard to forget. If “Eighth Grade” is sometimes too painful to be enjoyable, well, we can’t blame it for telling the truth.
My Rating: See it in the theater