Eighth Grade is not a horror film, per se, but I’ve never experienced more dread in a theater than I did in the moments as I watched our protagonist, shy 8th-grader Kayla (Elsie Fisher), exit the safety of her father’s sedan and slowly walk up the pathway toward a classmate’s pool party. The party is being thrown by a popular girl named Kennedy who has invited Kayla under duress: “My mom told me I had to invite you to my party so this is me inviting you” she writes to Kayla on Instagram. But egged on by her father (Josh Hamilton), who has told her to put herself “out there,” off Kayla goes. The party itself is so painfully realistic, I felt vaguely traumatized by it—like I was back in 8th grade myself, suffering my own social mortifications. Kayla has the wrong bathing suit (a one piece; all the rest of the girls wear bikinis) and she seems to use the wrong door to enter the pool area (it jams, but instead of finding a different door, she squeezes her way through its narrow opening). Then she gets in the pool, leans against its edge, and waits for someone—anyone—to notice her.
I’m not the first female critic to describe feeling pangs of extreme identification with Kayla and her plight and that’s a testament to both Fisher’s preternaturally honest performance and the remarkable empathy and insight of first-time (!) writer/director Bo Burnham. I wasn’t a shy kid like Kayla—the opposite, I talked too much and too loudly, calling attention to myself which is terrible thing to do in middle school! But the feelings of alienation and awkwardness are the same.
Burnham uses extreme closeups of Fisher’s face—not quite rid of its babyfat and smattered with just a bit of acne—to gain its sense of intimacy. He watches, with anthropological fascination, as Kayla goes through the ritual of posing for dozens of selfies, trying to find just the right filter or bunny ears or heart emojis or what have you to construct her public self. The film is perfectly attuned to Kayla’s inner life—it feels like a locked diary that has been opened and shared with the world.
Kayla is being raised by her father, played with endearing “dad-joke” realness by Hamilton, who is patient and doting (“I think you’re so cool—and I’m not just saying that because I’m your father”). But the more he dotes on her and compliments her, the worse she feels. His very existence is embarrassing to her. It’s like, can he stop making that concerned face all the time and stop making corny jokes and stop loving her that much and just be completely different from how he is?
Among the film’s many brilliant narrative devices are the little-watched YouTube self-help videos Kayla creates—a particularly successful one gets 7 views—which are really just pep talks to herself. One is about being yourself (“being yourself can be hard—it’s like, aren’t I always being myself?”), another is about putting yourself out there (“but where is there?”), a third is about confidence, and so on. In the videos she talks about people getting to know the real her and how she’s not really shy she just seems shy because she doesn’t talk to anyone at school. She signs off her videos with a faux confident—“Gucci!”—which I guess is a catch phrase she’s trying to make happen.
The pain of Eighth Grade feels universal, but it’s also attuned to the specific horrors of middle school life right now—from the wilds of Instagram and Snapchat to active shooter drills in the hallway. And it really understands the hope that comes with each new social interaction, each new grade—the possibility that people are finally going to see the “real” you. Watching Eighth Grade, you want to gently shake Kayla—and your eighth-grade self—and assure her, “It gets better.”
A note on the film’s rating: Eighth Grade is rated R, mostly for references to one particular sex act, but I think a mature 13-year-old can handle it and will likely love it. Expect a lively conversation on the car ride home.