Given his enormous success on YouTube and on stage and the very strong early word, expectations are high for Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade. Amazingly, Burnham’s transition from stand up performance to filmmaking has been utterly seamless, keeping his unique genius intact in this warm, hilarious, and powerfully awkward tribute to surviving middle school in the social media era. A keen observer of and product of online culture, Burnham never downplays the issues modern teens face, very reminiscent of the funny, acerbic care shown to the demographic in Netflix’s wonderful Big Mouth.
Set over the last week of middle school, Eighth Grade follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a quiet girl just trying to make it through and escape to high school. Burnham brilliantly captures the stress of teenage-hood in the age of Instagram and YouTube stars, Kayla and her contemporaries unable to ever really switch off as they attempt to fit in online. Kayla has a self-help YouTube channel – watched only by her loving dad (Josh Hamilton) – where she tries to make sense of her school life, while Instagram DM is the primary form of communication, even when the kids are mere feet away from each other.
Crucially, Burnham never judges this behaviour as a moral fault. While he is undoubtedly distressed by the prevalence of the pressures of social media, his script never takes the easy way out of just laughing at young people for liking their phones. Modern technology, particularly social media, is often embarrassingly portrayed in films, but in having a young, internet-savvy director at the helm, Eighth Grade gracefully glides over this problem, though this is not to say that there is any shortage of embarrassment here.
Without ever heading into ridiculous territory (though an active shooter drill is more shocking as a non-American viewer), Eighth Grade packs in an entire planet’s worth of cringe into a brief, 90-minute runtime. Most of it is horribly relatable, and though this is a story that, like Lady Bird or Moonlight, derives most of its power from specific experience, you will find at least one moment that throws you right back into being 14. Some of it is innocuous, like Kayla trying to be friends with the popular girls, but there’s also a profoundly distressing and sad scene of an older boy attempting to take advantage of Kayla in the back of his car.
Though, like real teenagehood, it’s the squirm-inducing moments that stick out most memorably, Burnham includes plenty of laughs and happiness. Loads of the kids are very funny, as is Kayla’s dad, who also gets a lovely speech full of gentle and deeply moving fatherly wisdom. There’s also a subtle but uplifting throughline of hope for the future, especially when Kayla meets high school girl Olivia (Emily Robinson), who feels like an idealised future version of Kayla herself.
Anchoring all of this is Fisher, who is an instant superstar. It’s an absolutely sensational performance from start to finish, commanding the camera in long takes and conveying every swirling emotion that being 14 and not hugely popular throws at you. It’s a huge testament to Fisher’s immense talent in her biggest live action role to date (she also voices one of the kids in Despicable Me) and to Burnham as an actor’s director. The fact that he can draw this kind of performance from a kid in his first directing gig, alongside some bold (though not always successful) visual and musical moments, suggests a very bright future for him as a filmmaker. Eighth Grade is a debut that lives up to all its hype.