I have never heard anyone say that they had a good time in eighth grade. Maybe a few people cover up how they loved it, but for most people it’s an awful jumble of hormonal awkwardness that manifests itself in nastiness, pouting, jealousy and enormous self-doubt about every single aspect of body, mind and the social world.
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) posts videos of herself talking on subjects like being yourself or confidence or putting yourself out there, which are for her all versions of being yourself, which is where most of Kayla’s struggle settles. But she seems coherent and stable for an eighth-grader, at least until she is off camera and in her actual life.
Kayla lives with her father – no mother or siblings in sight – and she goes to school where she’s as awkward as you expect her to be. She’s tongue-tied when she summons the nerve to talk to the queen bees of her class, or the boy she fantasizes about. She’s voted the “most quiet” girl in the class popularity poll. Kayla herself is not so skinny as those dreadful girls or that boy who all look like they’re been starved, and the boy looks like he’s plunked his head into a barrel of grease, or let’s call it hair product. Kayla’s awful to her father, who can do nothing right.
So, as you’d expect, Eighth Grade recounts a series of mishaps and missteps. The pool party at the home of disdainful but sarcastically-named Kennedy makes for disaster. Kayla is cursed from the get-go because she’s invited to the party by Kennedy’s mother, in a world where parents rank lower than pond scum. Then, Kayla puts on a one-piece bathing suit instead of a bikini. She gets the silent snotty stare from every kid, except for the geeky boy wearing goggles who’s willing to relate to her.
You expect all these things from a movie called Eighth Grade. It’s the stuff of light comedy, and it’s amusing, although not so much as you might hope. But writer and director Bo Burnham keeps his movie easy and familiar and asks few questions about anything. The movie never tests Kayla to let her see who she is.
One sequence gets close. Kayla winds up with a high school boy in the back seat of his car. He’s bad at smooth talking, but compared to Kayla, he’s almost persuasive. For a few moments, you feel the threat. You don’t know how far he’ll push it, or how far she’ll give in, and for those few moments the movie has consequence – but not for long.
Her situation at home never makes much sense. The missing mom is simply unmentioned until near the end when Kayla’s father says something about when mom left the family. You can’t tell if she died or ran away with a traveling salesman. From what her father says about changing diapers and things, Kayla must have been an infant, but otherwise it’s a blank spot in the movie, just like school itself which seems to be the location for cell phones and social gyrations, but not a single mention of anything that might happen in class, anything the children might be studying – eighth-graders still learn and talk about school, I believe.
Eighth Grade comes close to being good, but it’s like a tenth school reunion. People tell lots of stories about what it was like back then – about their adventures, who they made out with when their parents were away, who got drunk or stoned when. But everyone is afraid to say anything about what their lives then meant to them now, or what they’re doing now, what disappoints them or what pleases them. Former schoolmates are still locked into the kind of strutting pretension that the eighth-graders put out as a matter of course, maybe as a matter of survival. Imagine if Eighth Grade got into stuff like that?