Eighth Grade’s Kayla Day — played by the excellent Elsie Fisher — is the heroine I wish I’d been for myself when I was 13. When we first meet her, in comedian Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, she’s making one of her YouTube videos, a series of “tips” and self-help advice dished out to an audience of 1 or sometimes none, following a model that’s seemingly worked for others. She dolls out advice on “how to get out there” or “how to have confidence,” – after all giving advice is the best way to boost one’s social standing online. Most of the time, though, Kayla is making these videos based on what she needs to tell herself, but under the guise of having everything together and her life all under control.
But being 13 is a time when nothing is under control. I couldn’t imagine going through that time now, in this era of Instagram, Twitter, and other social media that threaten to dismantle even the strongest of self-esteems with incomprehensible algorithms and attention-devouring posts. Lest I sound really old, but I grew up with posts of the other kind. Letters, delivered by the postman or handed to each other across desks. Boys sending pieces of scrap paper with “will you be my girlfriend?” and a box for yes/no/maybe written on them. Friends capturing the latest news that happened over the weekend we just spent hanging out together. Spaces to grow up in that weren’t being shared for the world – or a large part of it – to see.
In Eighth Grade, we follow Kayla as she tries to navigate it all. It’s a difficult rite of passage, no matter the era in which it takes place or however technology has developed. Under Burnham’s hand, it’s a funny, poignant journey. Her relationship with her father, a single parent. Her longing for friends who get her. How she tries to impress the boy with the best eyes in school. Parts of the film are raw and funny and awkward, but it’s always earnest and sincere. We see Kayla start to realise she doesn’t need to make videos to know that she already knows who she is, what she will and won’t stand for. Why she wants the things she does. “To be brave you have to first be scared,” she tells her imaginary video audience. Oh to be so wise at that age! It’s one thing to know what to do; any grown up will tell you it’s quite entirely another to actually do it. How Kayla arrives at this understanding – in her own way – is the heart of this film. A gem for the ages.