Halfway through Eighth Grade, a police officer walks through a middle school, leading students through a drill meant to prep them for a school shooting. He strolls down the hallway in full riot gear, aiming a prop assault rifle at students with bullet holes painted onto their heads. “Bang” he says nonchalantly, and they fall down dead.
While the scene is both frightening and blackly funny for obvious reasons — the endless uptick in mass shootings; the woodenness of the police officer; the recruitment of the school’s drama club to play the victims — it stands out for a side conversation that may as well be the thesis of the film. Along a row of lockers, Eighth Grade‘s endearingly awkward protagonist, Kayla (Elsie Fisher), could care less about the emergency training or school shootings in general, however frequent they might be these days. Instead, she pours all of her energy into flirting with her crush, Aiden (Luke Prael), a popular kid and “Best Eyes” winner who only shows a lazy kind of interest in Kayla because she lies about having taken dirty pictures of herself.
This isn’t to show that Kayla is apathetic — quite the opposite, actually — but to highlight the impossible stakes of middle school. When you’re in eighth grade, wanting to feel loved, popular, or merely accepted does feel more important than the life-and-death tragedies of the world at large. And while it would be easy to treat these priorities of Kayla and the film’s other adolescent characters with contempt, Bo Burnham smartly uses empathy as his greatest weapon in his writer/directorial debut. When Kayla resists connecting with her well-meaning father (an equally endearing and awkward Josh Hamilton), you don’t hate her for it. Rather, your heart breaks for her being thrust into an environment where she’s led to believe that social standing has a higher currency than familial connection.
As Kayla navigates her final year of middle school in search of extroversion and any kind of unity with her peers, Burnham amplifies the world around her until it’s overwhelming — terrifying, even — while still being realistic. The fluorescent sun, frantic splashing, and gangliness of the 13-year-old in-crowd transform a pool party into a purgatory of isolation. Later on, Kayla has an early brush with predatory male behavior, made all the more terrifying by the close quarters of a car’s back seat.
But the film’s success also comes just as much from Fisher’s career-making performance, stitched together with downward gazes, deer-in-headlights moments of alarm, and a mastery of Burnham’s conversational dialogue, deliberately filled with stammering, “like”s, and “um”s. Most important of all, Fisher finds several moments of light when Kayla’s actual personality manages to shine through the inferiority and nervousness.
Strangely, these instances occur on her YouTube channel, where she offers kind self-help advice to an audience between one and zero viewers. As the film progresses, the central question becomes whether or not she’ll close the gap between how she presents herself in her everyday life and the more genuine, markedly mature personality she projects online. Burnham has often commented on the similar tension that existed in his own proto-YouTube superstardom as a 16-year-old. Here, though, he reverses the story, giving Kayla a more sincere online presence than his viral comedy videos, but with none of the (arguably damaging) popularity.
As Kayla drifts away from her truest self in her quest for acceptance, there are admittedly moments when the awkwardness and aggression of her universe threaten to make Eighth Grade a somewhat painful viewing experience. But having empathy for your characters often means giving them opportunities for growth, and Burnham thankfully never loses sight of the belief that things truly can get better if you want them to. Kayla doesn’t always realize that when she should. Then again, the same could be said for most adults.