As a horror fan, I’m always looking for that truly terrifying experience – sinking lower and lower into my seat, hands clutching the arm rests, whispering “make it stop” over and over again. No, I didn’t accidentally mistitle my review for The Nun – this is a review of Eighth Grade, the first feature from Bo Burnham, and the scariest movie of the year.
Eighth Grade follows protagonist Kayla’s final week of middle school, and it does so with such unflinching honesty that I had to watch entire scenes through my fingers. Take a sequence where Kayla is invited to a popular girl’s birthday party…by the popular girl’s mom, who really wants to hang out with Kayla’s dad. Kayla’s dad, Mark, can’t make it, but he encourages his introverted daughter to go and try to make some friends. The entire sequence plays out in excruciating detail, but the scene that made me debate leaving the theatre entirely was when it was time to open birthday presents. Watching the popular girl open perfect gift after perfect gift, and waiting for her to unwrap Kayla’s so closely mirrored experiences I’ve had that I wasn’t sure if I was watching a movie or just having a bad dream.
Bo Burnham is one of my favourite comedians. His special, what., is a brilliant piece of performance art that expertly weaves bizarre gags with achingly personal revelations. With Eighth Grade he leans much more heavily into the latter territory, to great effect. Burnham got his start as a YouTube sensation, so it’s no accident that Eighth Grade is one of the few movies out there that actually understands the internet. Kayla’s passion is making inspirational YouTube videos, which usually hover between zero and two views apiece. The film uses these videos as a way of tracking Kayla’s character arc, but instead of narrative shortcuts, these provide a fascinating look at the way Kayla desperately wishes herself to be seen and the nature of internet performance.
The film occasionally leans too heavily into jarring explosions of music, but that is the only complaint I could possibly level at Eighth Grade. Burnham’s script is airtight, with nary a wasted moment or false beat to be found. There is some comedy, but it is almost always used as much needed relief, and never feels out of step with the world that Burnham so meticulously creates.
None of this would work without Elsie Fisher, the actor playing Kayla. I haven’t seen her in anything else, which only serves to enhance the realism of her performance. She portrays Kayla with a fearlessness that is rarely seen on screen, especially in young actors. She dives so deeply into her character’s ticks and anxieties that I kept having to remind myself, “it’s just a movie.” I haven’t seen a better performance all year. Josh Hamilton more than holds his own as Mark, Kayla’s loving, painfully uncool Dad. The relationship between the two culminates in a scene so cathartic and true that the agonizing tension I’d been feeling for an hour and a half suddenly evaporated and I immediately burst into tears. It’s rare that a movie has the courage to put an audience through the ringer as much as Eighth Grade, but as that scene demonstrates the results can pay off in spades. It’s one of the very best movies of the year.