Very often, the portrayal of young people in media is stylized and stereotyped to the point of parody. The geek. The jock. The peppy cheerleader. All are tropes that at their basic level ignore the intricacies of a complex person. Writer and director Bo Burnham, recognizing that it is not how different kids are from adults but how similar, creates a full portrait of adolescence in “Eighth Grade.”
Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is an introvert, struggling to find her way as she transitions to high school. Her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), tries to help her, but Kayla has trouble opening up to him. She can’t make friends, trying to blend in by being someone else rather than herself, and she pushes herself past her comfort zone to attract the attention of boys. Depressed and anxiety-stricken, Kayla’s life is a constant struggle.
Kayla’s journey is never belittled, the issues of youth treated as serious as the issues of adulthood. This is not some teen drama which panders to a simple message. This is an R-rated film that explores growing up, sexuality and societal acceptance.
Burnham’s script is masterful, building the right character moments and really digging into the mind of a early teen girl. Every high is so high. Every low is so low. One minute, you’re on top of the world. The next, you feel as though you can never climb out of despair.
What is most intriguing is how Burnham is able to view Kayla’s journey not as a young person’s story, but as a universal story. The viewer can empathize with Kayla no matter how old they are because we all go through periods of great personal change, and we all struggle with finding our place in the world. Her confrontation and eventual acceptance of her identity builds an elemental base for the audience’s empathy.
A well-crafted, emotional story, “Eighth Grade” is a magnificent portrait of personal change.