Review: Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade

If you were to log onto from ten years ago, your recommendations would be filled with videos by a content creator named Bo Burnham. Burnham’s viral videos with titles such as, “i’m bo yo.” and “Rehab Center for Fictional Characters” were famous in the online community. Burnham wrote and performed witty and clever songs on various topics that were somewhat dark, awkward, introspective, and most importantly, relatable, to the young YouTube users of the late 2000s. Burnham made viewers laugh as well as reflect. Bo Burnham then went on to bigger projects such as music and stand up. He has two Netflix comedy specials: “what.” (2014) and 2016’s “Bo Burnham: Make Happy”. The stand up specials and Burnham’s music have similar grim and humorous tones but are mainly made with an older audience in mind. Burnham worked on projects that were aimed at audiences his own age; as Burnham matured, his audience grew with him. However, in Burnham’s most recent endeavor, the highly praised major motion picture, Eighth Grade,which will be released on DVD on October 9, the target audience was not young twenty-somethings or older teenagers, but young teens and tweens.

Eighth Grade follows eighth-grader Kayla Day as she survives the last week of middle school. Kayla is a teenager growing up in the age of technology, so the movie depicts the average social media life of a modern teen: making YouTube videos for a miniscule number of viewers, updating her Snapchat story, and commenting on her fellow classmates’ Instagram posts. The use of technology and apps that teens actually utilize daily makes the movie instantly accessible to its audience. The message of the film is not lost on younger viewers because the way the story is communicated is relatable to the children the film is addressing.

Burnham casted actors that were actually the age of the characters they were portraying, which is a rare blessing in a time when high school students are commonly played by actors in their late twenties (example: Cole Sprouse is twenty-five and currently plays the role of a sixteen-year-old on Riverdale). When actors in movies or television shows are many years older than the characters they portray, the appropriately aged audience of the program cannot fully relate to the story. Elsie Fisher, playing the lead role of Kayla Day, was an actual eighth-grader when she filmed Eighth Grade. During a trip to her future high school, Kayla befriends twelfth-grader Olivia, played by Emily Robinson, who was a high school senior when the movie was filmed. Burnham also shows young students like Kayla with braces and real acne; these are eternal elements of middle school life. The child actors were dressed in unflattering, ill-fitting outfits. The overall appearance of the actors was refreshingly realistic in its reflection of actual eighth-graders.

The actors’ appearances helped to authenticize the narrative, but the most impressive component was the actors themselves. The performances of Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton, who plays Kayla’s father, are realistic and utterly believable. Fisher accurately depicts a confused and awkward eighth-grader in Kayla Day. Kayla does not have real friends and desperately wants to belong with the popular kids. Fisher’s ability to illustrate the vulnerability and uncertainty of a teenager navigating her way around school without a confidante is astonishing, and it resonates with audiences. Fisher makes viewers feel Kayla’s pain in a way that most young actors cannot accomplish. Josh Hamilton’s portrayal of Kayla’s father is also impressive. Hamilton captures another type of insecurity to which older audiences members can relate: the doubt and helplessness involved in raising a teenager. Viewers empathize as Hamilton worries about his daughter, and fumbles when he tries to show his daughter how much he cares for her. Hamilton demonstrates a common parental mix of being supportive, while still unsure yet hopeful regarding her future. The performances of Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton perfectly capture the uncertainty and confusion that comes along with growing up in this age dictated by social media.

In Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham manages to distill the feelings and emotions of an entire period of a person’s life. Burnham gave voice to a segment of the population that is often overlooked: middle schoolers. While Eighth Grade definitely spoke to its target audience of teenagers, Bo Burnham certainly managed to pull at the heart strings of  young and old alike.

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