So far, the films I’ve seen at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival have revolved around teens. First, the opening night movie, Class Rank, and yesterday, Bo Burnham’s feature debut as writer-director, Eighth Grade (which screens again tonight at Regal Hollywood 11 Cinemas).
Burnham was in attendance for yesterday’s show at the Art Ovation Hotel, and spoke briefly to the audience before and after the movie, which he said was “made with love.” The star of his movie is Elsie Fisher as Kayla, a shy 13-year-old in her last week of middle school (which Burnham describes accurately as “horrible, funny, sad and weird”).
Kayla spends most of her time away from school in her bedroom, recording videos for her YouTube channel, which no one watches but which give her an outlet to give advice (to herself as much as her would-be audience) about how to appear confident, make friends, etc. (Burnham, a singer-rapper-actor-multi-hyphenate, became something of a YouTube sensation himself while still in his teens.) As played by Elsie Fisher with awkward honesty, Kayla faces some of the familiar struggles of adolescence: skin breakouts, body image issues, knowing she’s not liked by the popular kids.
However, in today’s world, she also faces the reality of ubiquitous cell phones (she and her counterparts rarely look up from them, constantly scrolling) and active shooter drills at her school (in a scene that jolts the viewer, especially right now).
Luckily, Kayla does have a loving father (Josh Hamilton), who may worry about his daughter’s happiness but never doubts that she’s amazing. And she may have new friends in the form of the high school student she shadows for a day (Emily Robinson) and a goofy guy named Gabe (Jake Ryan) she meets at an otherwise excruciating pool party.
Burnham’s script walks the fine line between comedy and pathos with nary a stumble, and the situations and dialogue here—hesitations, embarrassments and all—ring true. You want Kayla to come through all right, and you think that she will.
Eighth Grade, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, has a release date of July 13.