Relive your middle school experiences with Eighth Grade


Eighth Grade will remind you of the highs and lows of middle school through the eyes of dynamic new discovery, Elsie Fisher.

Hollywood treats the middle school/high school experience with all the introspection of an anthropological experiment with movies that emphasize the fantasy and others with the cruel realities. Director Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is something in between; it’s a film that, despite the R-rating, will certainly connect with tweens navigating the turbulent waters of middle school, while simultaneously reminding adults of the nostalgia and frustration of that time. The film’s appeal certainly depends upon your own middle school experiences, but there’s no denying leading lady Elsie Fisher is a bright new discovery cementing herself as the Molly Ringwald for the Snapchat generation.

Not to sound like a crotchety old person, but back in my day, middle school was different. Eighth Grade captures the current experiences of middle-schoolers, seen through the eyes of Kayla Day (Fisher), a 13-year-old girl in the final week of middle school. Like most iGen kids Kayla has grown up with a cell phone in her hand, spending her days making videos on YouTube, all of them ending with her signature “Gucci!” sign-off.

But Kayla is desperate for something to happen that will cause all of her frustrations and anxieties to disappear. When her class unearths their sixth-grade time capsules, Kayla is disappointed that her sixth-grade self hoped she’d have a boyfriend and be cool by now. It is this idea of chasing cool that propels Kayla, and with which she seems to continuously fall short.

We’re all Kayla Day. Whether it’s her penchant for taking Buzzfeed quizzes and endlessly scrolling Tumblr, or having special theme music when the boy she likes enters the room, anyone watching Eighth Grade feels for Kayla’s predicament. Burnham’s camera captures the perpetual anxiety of feeling as if you’re always “on.” When Kayla is invited to a classmate’s pool party out of pity, she has a mild panic attack in the bathroom, terrified out of going outside in a bathing suit. And without undermining the lead, Burnham shows the girls in the audience that it’s perfectly suitable to not have the normal body type. When she’s stuck next to a group of skinny girls, it only shows the audience that it’s them with the problem; they’re the ones perusing a body type that gives girls these complexes in the first place. To see Kayla eventually get into the pool and make a friend, albeit the equally awkward Gabe (Jake Ryan), is to show that representation matters and common ground can be found.

There’s not enough that can be said about Elsie Fisher. Her Kayla Day is so desperate to be liked she has a mirror plastered with affirmations like “learn a new joke every day.” She’s torn between growing up too quickly, like the girls in her class who turn their nose up at a card game, and wanting to be a child who enjoys chicken McNuggets. She’s complemented by Josh Hamilton as her dad, Mark. Hamilton’s father is the dad everyone wishes they had. Sure, he tries to be involved in Kayla’s life — interrupting her Instagramming and spying on her at the mall — but there’s no doubt it comes from a place of love. When the two talk at the end of the film, it’s a moment that every parent wishes they could express to their children about the love they bear for them.

Being about a final week in the school year, Eighth Grade takes a bit of an ambling route from A to B. With the entirety of the narrative made up of how Kayla deals with this transition to high school, there’s little in the way of rising or falling action. There are no major conflicts because said conflict is happening internally, and that can lead to a quiet, subdued film experience.

The movie touches on what is specifically affecting teens today, particularly the over-sexualization of young girls. Kayla holds a torch for Aiden (Luke Prael) and discovers he’s into receiving nude pictures. Confused by this, Kayla attempts to entice him with this knowledge but ends up sticking her foot in her mouth. The film’s navigation of female sexuality is unique, at times frank in showing the ways boys get what they want — a moment between Kayla and a high school boy threatens to end terribly. Yet it also showcases Kayla’s own confusion about what she wants from a sexual standpoint. It’s upsetting that kids who should see this movie won’t make it in because of the film’s R-rating.

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Eighth Grade will appeal to a wide swath of the population who still feel the scars of their middle school upbringing. The film does have a quiet, straightforward way that’s more feeling-based, which might limit memorability down the line. Elsie Fisher is utter gold, though. Watch out for her.