We have all been young before.
Most of us have been in middle school. And I guarantee you it wasn’t the most glamorous or precious time of our lives. It’s a time of change and evolution, and not in an exciting way. But it’s instrumental in how our adolescence is shaped. We learn and grow immensely. Few films have been able to capture the enormity, anxiety, and minutia of this stage in our lives quite like Eighth Grade.
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is a masterclass in screenwriting. He exhibits an undeniable empathy for his characters, the central one being Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an 8th-grade girl, and the second one being her middle-aged father (Josh Hamilton).
Kayla is depicted as a lonely girl with no siblings, pretty much no friends, and an inability to connect with her father. She’s even shown to be a little bit of a brat just ignoring him and constantly being on her phone.
The use of technology and social media in this film is a little daunting and scary. The way Burnham is able to montage and overlay the various social media black holes that Kayla falls into is a bit unsettling but also just true-to-life to what it must be like for somebody her age living in this digital era.
Much has been said about the balance of comedy and drama in this film, as well as Burnham’s incredibly empathetic approach to this story. But I think the biggest reason why this movie works is that the screenplay presents Kayla with scene after scene of scenarios in which she either wins or loses, or sometimes both. It’s what keeps us engaged and invested in her journey.
This strategy of filling your screenplay with objectives to succeed and overcome is basic screenwriting 101. It just goes back to the original idea of giving your protagonist central motivations so that you’re invested in the story that plays out.
Early on in the story, we see this play out pretty perfectly as Kayla is having dinner with her father and she keeps putting headphones in her ears. Her father is unable to lay down the law in any meaningful way, so he just lets her ignore him and continue being on her phone instead of having a family meal and a real conversation.
This exchange quickly turns into an argument and the father just lets her win. He’s unable to be a tough dad and just lets her be on her phone instead of actually looking at him and talking to him.
In the very next scene, this victory quickly turns into a loss when he walks in on her looking at the dreamy boy from school on Instagram. She quickly throws the phone across the room in a panic and later discovers that the screen is shattered.
So here Burnham shows us that victory followed by a loss and this dynamic carries out throughout the film as we’re constantly worried about Kayla’s well-being and whether or not she’s going to be okay.
We’re so in her perspective that even though she may be a little bit inept in some areas, she’s still just a little girl and she’s still just figuring things out and learning how to manage her anxieties and navigate this world as a teenager.
What makes this film so invigorating and engaging is that these objectives are so small and minute. This movie is not overtaken by a huge cataclysmic world-altering plot. It’s not really about the plot. It’s about feeling. But the story itself is full of these tiny little moments, these tiny wins and losses that Kayla is confronted with.
We are so invested in her story. We are so ready to see her succeed and giving her losses throughout the film is necessary for us to be even more invested because it hurts us when we don’t see her succeed. We’re reminded of our own youth and our own pain and suffering in those early teenage years and how momentous those tiny insignificant losses felt.
Part of Burnham’s genius is he is able to give her a win and loss at the same time. For example, when she wins the quietest superlative for the eighth-grade class it’s an award but it’s a backhanded award because you don’t want to be the quietest kid in your school. It puts a target on your back as this sort of introverted person with no friends — which is kind of what she is — and it hurts us to see her portrayed that way.
Another example is when she first talks to Aiden. It’s a win because he noticed her but a loss because she totally fumbles it. She later makes up for it during the drill (kind of, minus the blow job comment).
Now there are several moments in this film that could be considered the biggest losses and the biggest wins for Kayla. I think the pool sequence where she goes out and swims in the pool is kind of a big win for her. It’s a show of confidence. It’s a way for her to feel maybe a little bit comfortable in her skin and really just cranks up the anxiety because we’ve all been there. We have been insecure about how we look and how our bodies are. And especially during that time of adolescence, it’s amplified to a higher degree.
There’s a hidden win at this moment too, which is when she meets Gabe for the first time and we see a little twinkle of happiness in such an anxious little girl. Of relief and rest. We’ll get back to Gabe in a second.
Now the biggest loss is without a doubt the car scene. The backseat Truth or Dare scene. Man, this thing was hard to watch even on the rewatch. The way Burnham frames this as a director’s choice is masterful. This kid egging Kayla on is monstrous and the lighting and the look of the shot just reinforce how terrified Kayla feels in this moment.
But it’s not really a loss because of the kid — although he is a creepy little fuck — it’s a loss because Kayla put her faith in Olivia. We were so worried that Olivia was going to cause Kayla some sort of pain and we’re kind of relieved when she doesn’t.
She’s really nice and invites her to hang out and treats her really well. But in the end, she does end up letting Kayla down. Kayla prayed to God for this day to be a great day and it was — until it wasn’t. She went to high school and met new friends and got to hang out at the mall and everything was going well right up until the very end when Olivia abandons her and leaves her alone in the car with this creepy kid.
That’s the real loss. What seemed to be a wonderful new friend for Kayla to latch onto just didn’t really come through it all.
The extreme anxiety that ramps up during the truth or dare scene culminates in the despair of Kayla crying in her bedroom.
This leads us to a perfect conclusion.
The ending of the film is perfect. Three scenes of closure. First the fire with the dad. Heart-wrenching and beautiful. A victory for the two of them. Connection and affection. Kayla opens up to her father and asks him if she still loves her despite her fearful and anxious nature. Her father reaches out and tells her “you make me brave,” which both expresses his love for her as well as how she inspires him to be a good man and good father.
The next scene is when she confronts the popular girl at graduation. It’s a win because she’s able to rise up and stand up for herself, but a loss because it doesn’t really change anything and Kayla can’t even make eye contact.
And finally, the glorious chivalry of Gabe and his chicken nuggets. The awkwardness that was once highly stressful and anxiety-inducing is now so endearing and beautiful. Finally, they have both won a real friend.