Eighth Grade: Stay Cool, by Tyler Smith
In the first few minutes of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, I worried that the humor at the center of the story of an awkward 13-year-old would spring primarily from a place of superiority. I was concerned that the film would adopt a decidedly adult tone, looking back on the problems of adolescents with amused detachment, vaguely nostalgic but ultimately condescending. As we think back on those frustrating years, there is the tendency to scoff at the things that we thought were so important; the things that we would soon realize didn’t matter that much in the long run. This bit of perspective is a vital part of growing up, but can be death to a film that attempts to depict these struggles from the point of view of those in the thick of it.
Thankfully, as the film goes on, Burnham expertly brings past and present together and creates a beautiful hybrid of the two. Eventually, we come to approach the uncomfortable evolution of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) with affection, urgency, and sadness. While we may never be able to fully divorce ourselves from the experiences we’ve had since our own respective childhoods, perhaps that is the point. While this film should undoubtedly be seen by members of Kayla’s age group, it is not without its value to adults, as well.
As Kayla prepares to leave eighth grade behind her and transition into high school, she reflects back on who she thought she would be, and who she is. Unsurprisingly, she is not happy with the disparity. A young woman who appears to be quite shy, Kayla is actually bubbling over with thoughts and opinions; she just doesn’t have a lot of people in her life that she can express them to. Her inner life differs greatly from her outer life.
Kayla has very few friends, and no romantic prospects, though she desperately wants both. Instead, she has a well-meaning father (Josh Hamilton), who wants so badly to connect with his daughter that he often winds up pushing her further away. She has a crush on a boy (Luke Prael), whose vacuousness is often mistaken for confidence among his peers, and she has a new high school acquaintance (Emily Robinson), whose enthusiastic optimism acts an oasis in Kayla’s world of adolescent posturing.
And it is in this desperation to appear cool, calm, and collected that the inherent truth of Eighth Grade comes through. As Kayla, Elsie Fisher crafts a character who is constantly watching; watching her classmates, watching her Instagram feed, watching herself. Anything that could give Kayla the slightest edge in climbing the ladder towards social acceptability. Fisher seems to understand the importance of not playing up Kayla’s shyness, nor her interior precociousness. To go too far in either direction would be to turn Kayla into a more standard film character. Instead, Fisher walks the tightrope between the internal and external, as many teenagers must as they discover who they really are (as opposed to who they might wish to be).
Were Fisher’s performance and Burnham’s writing not so authentic, the film could seem like any other coming-of-age film, vaguely amusing but not particularly insightful. Instead, the realness and familiarity of Kayla’s journey starts to take on particular significance for the audience. While we may have started the film thinking back to how far we’ve come since our teenage years, the struggles of our main character aren’t really that different than our struggles now. The scenery may have changed, but the desires have not.
At age 36, I still want to be accepted by my peers. I still get angry with myself when I let down the people I love. I want to believe that I’ve made progress and have become a better human being. And, of course, I use as my compass the success, failure, status, appearance, and demeanor of those around me.
That is the true brilliance of Bo Burnham’s film. It lures the audience in with the promise of nostalgia and present-day security, then challenges it to take a long look at itself in the mirror. Just as Kayla starts every day meticulously staring at herself, looking for every little imperfection, the film challenges us to take stock of our own adult lives. And, in doing so, we come to the realization that, yes, we may have graduated years ago, but many of us are still in middle school, longing for the day when we’ll finally be acceptable; when we’ll finally be cool.