In Bo Burnham’s terrific new film “Eighth Grade,” his star, eighth-grader Kayla (a stunning, young Elsie Fisher) begins the film and other scenes by posting her daily YouTube podcast news of the day, from a thrown together “studio” in her home.

Staring into the screen like a professional, she’s buoyant, confident and charming. Is anyone out there watching? She doesn’t know. She pretends there is, and this is essential to knowing her.

But there is the other Kayla, just as real, away from the camera, more vulnerable, more insecure.

Kayla floats through the school halls by running the gauntlet of winsome, pretty things. Of course she really wants to run with the pack, and makes one painful try after another.

Here, Burnham pops in a scene that slips over the edge.

Kayla confronts two of the “queen bees” to make nice. While she’s chatting them up, they never take their eyes from their phones. You can practically feel Kayla’s blood run cold.


The most memorable scene that girls like Kayla will alway remember, is a classic.

It’s at a birthday pool party held at the posh home of one of the “mean” girls our heroine confronts each day in the final weeks of the eighth grade.

Kayla didn’t want to attend this event, but the mother of the birthday “mean” girl, a sweet mom with good intentions, invited her.

So Kayla shows up, and from a perch at the back deck door she scans the festivities. Her entire class (and probably dozens of others she doesn’t know) are circling the pool like a bikinied march of the penguins, texting friends who are six inches away while sipping diet colas. This one scene alone paints for us the jungle of soft hostility our beleaguered Kayla confronts daily.

She is frozen. In Kayla’s eyes, it’s a beach blanket movie from Hell, where all lost souls are gorgeous, tanned and lithe of limb, all sharp and cool, timely and Instagram framable.

Braces on snow white teeth sparkle like diamonds in the sun.


Writer director Bo Burnham seems to have coughed up a similar scene from his own middle school experience. It’s that perfect.

After considering flight, our Kayla sighs and goes to the bathroom. She changes into her swimming suit; a laundromat-chair-green, one piece general use garment.

With arms folded tightly across her stomach, she makes a break for the pool, where she quickly slides into the water, hoping no one will notice her.

Unwilling to try again and determined to just get through graduation without another hit, Kayla keeps her head down but eyes straight ahead. Things get worse for our Kayla.

My problem throughout is the unexplained absence of a mother. Twice this season, we’re given scenarios where vulnerable adolescent girls are trapped in homes with sincere, truly loving but fumbling fathers, and no mother in sight.

It’s plain to see that many of Kayla’s biggest life problems would benefit enormously from the wisdom of a mom.


Josh Hamilton, who plays Kayla’s father, is a good actor, but he seems completely gobsmacked by the confused adolescent seated at his table. Did he not participate in her childhood? She did suddenly appear out of nowhere? Why did he not seek some help? Burnham gives us Kayla, a bright but inchoate woman with real adolescent angst, yet with the innate smarts to overcome them. Why does Mark miss all that?

Concerned and worried, he just keeps asking princess dial phone questions of this 2018 iPhone daughter. Futile. This is a gap in the script I had trouble filling.

Still the film succeeds, largely because of star Elsie Fisher’s amazing work and sheer determination. She’s too good, and didn’t need Burnham’s fudging by surrounding her with overly vapid classmates and clueless boys. And how about just one friend?

In the end, a spot of paternal love promises a brighter future.

In the sequel that is sure to come, this high school scenario could play out: Kayla is met with more advanced “Sisters of Snobbery,” more testosterone challenged man-boys who will attempt to stall her determined advance into adulthood. But still… she will persist.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and film actor.

filed under: