I spent most of Eighth Grade like I spent most of actual eighth grade—waiting for it to be over. The directorial debut dramedy by aw-shucks/jokes/keyboards YouTube star Bo Burnham (he’s this generation’s Ben Folds!) is a punishing look at the crippling existence of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an isolated, anxiety-ridden teenage girl.
Who’s pumped up to feel some empathy? (AIRHORN SOUND) Guidance counselors? I see you! Maybe very cool parents? Auuuuuunts? Alas, no actual eighth graders can see this film without going with one of their parents (awesome!), since Burnham likes the swears and Eighth Grade is rated ‘R.’
But Burnham’s film succeeds in other ways: While Eighth Grade starts off feeling just like the real eighth grade—interminable—it takes a similar path to the real experience of growing up, with the endless awfulness gradually lifting as Kayla gains perspective. It’s beautifully done. There are also some shining, subtle moments of character interplay—like the tension surrounding Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), a popular girl in Kayla’s orbit—that I wish we could have seen extended to the character of Kayla herself.
Unfortunately, Kayla’s a big ol’ zero. Burnham wrote Eighth Grade about his own youth, then swapped in a girl character to spice it up, and I’ll just call that what it is: wearing girlhood like a costume to make a familiar story more interesting. Unfortunately, Eighth Grade commits the cardinal sin of men writing women characters, with Kayla coming across as possessing neither personality nor internality. (Kennedy! Come back!) Eighth Grade isn’t told from the view of a teenage girl; it’s a view of a teenage girl. That’s an important distinction, and speaks to the immaturity of Burnham as a director and writer. Here’s hoping his filmmaking skills—like his Eighth Grade—will improve with time.