Editor's note: Gary Wilkerson, Jr. is one of three recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism for 2018.
As a life-long member of the Awkward Kid Club, I’ve been waiting for a movie that spoke to my existence as a teen. Ferris Bueller was brave, the members of the The Breakfast Club at least understood what stereotype they fit in, and even Lady Bird’s defiance would have been something to marvel at. I began to wonder if it could be achieved. Could a story about the most socially awkward kid you went to school with sustain a full movie? Bo Burnham not only thinks this is possible, he makes it happen. In the way he perfectly captures our imperfect adolescence, his directorial debut "Eighth Grade" makes awkward kids everywhere feel a little less alone.
The film follows 13-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) during her final week of middle school. Within minutes of meeting Kayla, we watch her receive the coveted superlative of “Most Quiet.” She realizes her shy, awkward, no-friend-having secret is out; an awkward teen's worst fear. Usually, in films about adolescence, you either get an emotionally upsetting cautionary tale or a group of horny high schoolers determined to lose their v-card by prom night. "Eighth Grade" is able to grasp both tones and bring them together. You can’t help but laugh whenever you see Kayla’s bad boy crush appear and his bad boy theme music begins to play. You also can’t help but cringe and feel for her as an older teen tries to coerce her to take off her top in the back seat of his car. But that’s where Burnham gets it right. He’s able to guide us emotionally through the ups and downs of being 13. He makes us laugh when he wants us to laugh, and he definitely leaves room for you to feel something.
What most movies in the coming-of-age category miss is how much of that time is about the internal struggle. Burnham never tries to accentuate Kayla’s physical flaws to prove a point. No close ups of her acne, no shots of her evaluating her body in the mirror. The only scene he could have made about her body is when she shows up to a pool party in her one-piece, surrounded by two-pieces. You instantly know she had her body struggle in the bathroom before she came out. We didn’t need to see that. Her walk of shame through the kids and into the pool all stems back to her awkwardness. She knows if she can just make it inside of the pool, she’ll be safe.
While much of the praise deservingly goes to Burnham for navigating the ship, more should go to new-comer Elsie Fisher. When she turns on her YouTube persona, you can’t help but smile at the awkward accuracy. Her speeches are riddled with “umm” and “like” in a way that makes you wonder if it was ever on the page, or if she fully understood who Kayla was. Kayla is so shy and quiet that the bulk of her performance is shown through her eyes and body language. Fisher beautifully navigates the complexities of her character's subtext. Burnham pulls something from almost every character. His close-up on popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) when her mom invites Kayla to her birthday party is priceless. Kennedy’s eyes seem to say, “You better tell my mom you’re busy and you can’t make it.” Kayla reads this loud and clear and appeases her.
It would have been easy for Burnham to show a young girl who just wants to be a replica of the other popular kids. But he fights against the current by unveiling a girl just yearning to be seen by the popular kids. Even through her YouTube videos, you can feel she isn’t trying to be Oprah, she just wants the Oprahs of the world to validate her existence. Kayla’s father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), spends the entire movie trying to do just that. He sees her, he reassures her that she’s human and as perfect as any flawed human can be. In typical teen behavior, she resists his gross attempt at a little thing called love.
"Eighth Grade" taps us on the shoulder and says, “You thought high school was bad? You forgot about high school’s origin story.” Burnham is emotionally honest in a way that if Kayla’s story was not your experience in the eighth grade, you at least remember that kid. You wonder if you really saw them. We are left with the knowledge that that piece of you never disappears. Burnham showed us that the struggle of being awkward is an internal battle, you try to find a way to prove you’re normal through your YouTube page but people can see right through it. Whether you’re a lifelong member of the Awkward Kids Club or a newbie, "Eighth Grade" is finally the movie we’ve been waiting for that validates our experience.
Other articles from the Sundance 2018 Ebert Fellows:
“Emergency” Stands Out in Shorts Program by Brandon Towns
A Filmmaker’s Point of View by Jomo Fray