A fumbling, desperately effortful teenage girl is telling a non-existent online audience how to be confident at the start of the deservedly acclaimed Sundance darling Eighth Grade. Kayla is both the narrator and subject of a new kind of teen movie — innovative and thrillingly honest, giving a voice to people warring with the noise in their heads for a lifetime.
Bo Burnham has renounced stand-up comedy to mould his cripplingly self-aware material into a truthful picture about growing up Extremely Online. Kayla perfectly represents the in-between girls — thriving (or at least, surviving) on the internet, stammering (when any sound comes out at all) out loud. It’s a world of endless scrolling, of Post-it notes and bullet points on how to show the world that Kayla is “really funny and cool and talkative”.
This manifests through a crush on a charmless boy (voted ‘Best Eyes’ opposite Kayla’s ‘Most Quiet’), a subsequently scarring YouTube search about oral sex, and more PG attempts at social integration including a mall date with affable high school mentors, a Truth Or Dare game stressing the seriousness of consent, and a new friendship with a boy who seals his suitability with a Rick And Morty impression. The film’s tightness comes from Burnham’s wise decision to let messy sounds play loudly. Every breath and hesitation echoes.
A new kind of teen movie, innovative and thrillingly honest.
When Fisher chokes on a word, Kayla is all the more convincing. The young actor triumphs, setting an example with less-than-perfect posture and must-be-concealed blemished skin. She feels like the person you never told anyone you were. Her stamina is uncompromising and her inadequacies obligatory, even exemplary.
Reality remains grounded, even if Burnham experiments with the limits of horror in the orbiting aspects of Kayla’s life. An antagonising score, with blaring synths and militant horns, leers at a pool party. A floating voice salutes an iconic Vine, while another tells a classroom what’s “gonna be lit”, and an active shooter drill lays the backdrop for brazen flirting. The generous patience of Kayla’s dad never stops pushing through the poptimist music filling her eardrums, while an older boy, with his terrifyingly suggestive words, almost makes the tale more traumatic.
But this is Kayla’s story. How did Bo Burnham, a straight, white, twentysomething man, get it so right? Eighth Grade doesn’t capture the world ending, but never discredits the moments when Kayla feels like it could. Her emotions are raw and considered, and her lessons ring true. Everyone wants to know about ‘How to Be Confident’, ‘Putting Yourself Out There’, and ‘Being Yourself’. Burnham doesn’t necessarily have the answers, but he’s mustered the bravery to speak these fears into existence. And luckily, he’s introduced us to the coolest girl in the world to help.