Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 3, 2019)
Best-known as a comedian who gained fame via YouTube videos, Bo Burnham makes his directorial debut via 2018’s Eighth Grade. Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) approaches the end of eighth grade and has just one week left to go before middle school concludes.
This doesn’t mean parties and frivolity, though, as the introverted Elsie finds it tough to socialize with her peers. Instead, she uses online communication and her own advice videos on YouTube to keep her act together.
I might now be in my early 50s, but that doesn’t mean I don’t remember the angst and awkwardness of middle school. I’d argue seventh grade is worse than eighth grade, but both suck pretty bad, so it’s nitpicking to debate which is less pleasant.
Since I work for a school system, I spend a lot of time around kids, and I was assigned to a middle school for 15 years. The students tended to be too young to seem adult but too old to feel like children, so I got the worst of both worlds: immaturity paired with a snotty attitude.
Grade manages to convey that tone well, especially via Kayla’s interactions with her dad Mark (Josh Hamilton). She constantly treats him like nothing more than an annoyance and wants to seem “adult”, but we know she remains an insecure kid.
A film without a lot of true plot, Grade depends on tone more than anything else, and it reminds us of the sheer awkwardness of being 13 well. Of course, if the movie had focused on a more polished kid like “mean girl” Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), the result would’ve been different, but Kayla gives us a good avatar for the uncomfortable nature of her age group.
Actually, Kayla may not be the most representative sample, as the movie goes to pains to tell us that she’s unusually shy. She “wins” the award as “Least Talkative”, for God’s sake! That alone makes her an outlier among her peers.
Still, Kayla doesn’t feel all that “odd”, and the movie makes sure she comes across like a fairly normal kid, even if she seems less outgoing than her classmates. We get a good sense of her awkwardness and struggles to cope with the reality of teen life.
As much as I can relate to some aspects of middle school existence all these decades later, one domain that differs relates to technology. When I was in middle school, the Internet didn’t exist and virtually no one had personal computers. (My family got our first Apple at the end of ninth grade.)
Smartphones and online connectivity pervade Grade, so the film reminds us constantly how these factors impact day-to-day life. The movie may exaggerate things slightly, mainly because no one at the middle school seems to try to keep kids off their phones during class. There’s no way schools would be so permissive and let kids consult their devices whenever they want, so the film lacks realism there.
Still, the point comes through that kids live life through their phones, for better or for worse. In Kayla’s case, her You Tube channel acts as a creative outlet, but plenty of negative circumstances arise as well, and the film lets us see these influences in a concise manner.
My biggest problem with Grade relates to its third act. After an hour of a movie without anything particularly substantial, the story suddenly shifts into “very important episode” mode, with big revelations.
Okay, that exaggerates matters somewhat, as Grade doesn’t subject Kayla to any serious jeopardy or misery, but given that the final act takes place over roughly two or three days, she goes through an awful lot of life changes.
I get the impression Burnham wanted a movie without a real beginning or end – beyond the middle school graduation – but he chickened out and felt he needed something more “meaningful”. I understand that impulse, but I don’t think it works, as it requires Kayla to change too much over a brief period of time.
Still, even with that hiccup, Eighth Grade provides a pretty satisfying look at middle school life. It feels honest and engaging, factors that allow it to become a worthwhile endeavor.