I’m watching Eighth Grade, the first feature film written and directed by standup comedian Bo Burnham. And we’ve come to the scene in which 13-year-old Kayla, played by the effervescent Elsie Fisher, digs deep for the courage to walk out into a classmate’s crowded backyard and through that rite of passage called a Pool Party.

The movie is playing on a typical Seattle arthouse cinemas screen. But this vivid flashback I’m suffering is playing in IMAX 3D.

Bear with me a moment. Let the memory play out…

I’ve arrived at Corrie’s house for my class’s first pool party. This place is a mansion. And, meandering about in swim trunks, a towel slung over my shoulder, I have it all to myself. I’m 14 years old.

While air conditioners hum softly—an unfamiliar tone, as this is Portland, Oregon, where 80 degrees gets categorized as “a heat wave”—I move in barefooted disbelief through a labyrinth. Adrenaline roars in my ears as I meander from strange, empty bedroom to strange, empty bedroom, my steps soundless across thick carpets that seem brand new.

I don’t want to be there. But I know I have to be. It’s expected. All the cool kids are doing it, and I so, so want to be cool.

Still, now that I’m here, now that I’ve stripped down to my trunks, I can’t bring myself to go out there. Out there. In front of everyone.

I examine dust-free antiques that look more like showroom exhibits than the stuff of a family home. I scan bookshelves for familiar titles, finding only romance novels, their covers unnerving me with images of women in billowy dresses sinking into masses of masculine muscle. Picture frames open like windows onto idyllic, rainbowed villages. By comparison to my natural habitat, this is a rich family’s wonderland. I feel out of my element. Intimidated. Painfully aware of my naïveté. A cat glares at me, judging me, from a perfectly spread bed.

This is one of many vivid memories I retain from the one and only pool party I ever attended in middle school. I remember that long, terrifying silence in the house, when I occasionally mustered the courage to approach a window and look down into the backyard, with its lawn of chemically amplified green, and its enormous pool. My classmates were shouting, laughing, splashing, diving. They seemed liberated, wildly alive—so different from the kids I knew in the classroom, where I was the confident, happy, talkative one and many of them seemed miserable.

I remember that I stepped back into another of the mansion’s many bathrooms to look yet again and see if this mirror would give me any more confidence. It didn’t. My skinny torso, my skinny arms, the moist and pimpled outbreaks on my face—none of it looked ready for daylight.

I tried to remember how to be in a pool, but all I could remember was sitting in a plastic wading pool when I was seven, and abandoning swimming lessons at an athletic club due to frustration and an allergy to chlorine. But I had to go out there. The potential for humiliation at hiding in the house was as high or higher than it was for jumping in with kids who actually knew how to swim.

I threw my towel over my shoulder. “Get it over with,” I said. “People who are even less popular than you are out there.” That didn’t help.

I took a deep breath, said an earnest prayer, and I walked out the sliding glass door into certain humiliation. I strode swiftly across the patio. Everything shifted to slow motion. I reached the edge of the pool. I saw a few heads turn. I heard someone say my name. I jumped.


It’s all coming back as I watch Eighth Grade for the first time. My heart is stuck in my throat. The suspense is worse than it’s been at any other movie this year—including Hereditary with its ghosts and Mission: Impossible—Fallout with its threat of nuclear apocalypse.

Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade.

I’m not the first to respond to Eighth Grade as if it’s a PTSD trigger. Few escape those years of physical transformation, emotional turmoil, peer pressure, and anxiety without scars. And few filmmakers have the courage, the artistry, the empathy, and the resolve to represent those years truthfully. Most movies about early-teen experiences oversimplify things with wish-fulfillment endings, characters rigidly categorized into types, or an obsession with raunch that suggests the storytellers never really grew up.

But Bo Burnham, with the help of Fisher’s extraordinarily complicated and convincing lead performance, has given us a film that strikes me as creative and compassionate. It’s like he had it carefully b.s.-tested for authenticity by real-life eighth graders. It works because of his care and attention to this lonely character, the way he draws us into her experiences, the way he refuses to get lazy and pour this batter into a pre-existing cake mold.

I almost wanted this movie to settle for a formula. It would have provided some relief from the all-too-real stress of revisiting that context of crushing uncertainties and strange longing. I keep waiting for one classmate to emerge as a villain. That would make it a movie, a routine, a game I know how to play. But it doesn’t. My eighth grade class didn’t have villains either—just a lot of similarly insecure and awkward teenagers. Sure, some of them were guilty of bullying—we glimpse that potential in Kayla’s classmates. Some were self-absorbed and clique-ish—and those are easy to spot here too. My class, like Kayla’s, had one or two who were extremely odd in their hobbies and obsessions. But Eighth Grade refuses to cast judgment on anybody. Adolescence is like a storm that has descended on this community of young people, and they are all enduring the pressure in their own ways.

In that, I’d rate this up alongside Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits as one of the finest depictions of adolescent struggles I’ve ever seen.

Most importantly, Eighth Grade refuses to cast judgment on adults. I was worried when, in an early scene, the students suffer an instructional video about puberty in which the motivational speaker, with a cloying grin, assures them that “It’s gonna be lit.” I flashed back to Brian Dannelly’s Saved!, with its unlikely authority figure—half youth pastor, half high school principal—who stands before evangelical high schoolers and shouts “Who’s down with G-O-D? … Let’s get our Christ on, let’s kick it Jesus-style!” Oh, it rang true. I remember recoiling when instructors tried to make students like them by exploiting a trending vocabulary. The nightmare is real. But it’s also an easy way for a screenwriter to make a mockery of parents and teachers, dividing comedies into sympathetic kids and intolerable grownups.

Here, Kayla is kept from the usual us-versus-them isolation by the presence of a loving father. As Mark, Josh Hamilton gives us an admirable man, one who is as awkward in being a single dad to a teenage girl as Kayla is awkward at being that teenage girl. They struggle together. They learn together. And Burnham gives their relationship even more impressive distinctiveness by not abandoning his subject for the easier, more familiar questions about What Happened to Mom?, or When Will Mom Come Back?, or Will Kayla Forgive Her?

Kayla and… her best friend?

Instead, Burnham sticks to a sturdy and rewarding structure, maintaining a laser focus on Kayla’s struggle to process her daily difficulties by a bold use of social media. Instead of relating the details of her embarrassments, failures, and confusion in an old-fashioned diary, Kayla shapes her struggles into pep talks and advice columns, which she speaks spontaneously into episodes of her own YouTube web series, greeting viewers with a friendly “Hey, guys!”

Is anybody else really listening? She’d like to believe that other insecure high school girls might find her, lonely as she is. And maybe they will.

Ch-ch-ch-changes: Kayla turns to face the strangeness of adolescence, peer pressure, and the perils of social media.

But here’s the important thing: Kayla is listening.

She’s aspiring to speak from a place of wisdom she has not yet obtained. This might seem tragic, even presumptuous. But the episodes become an inspiring affirmation that much of what we need most we carry in ourselves. In a sense, she’s becoming the mother she never had, the coach she needs, and the friend she’d rather find on the other end of a phone. She looking back at herself with the loving acceptance and compassion that she needs, the love she finds difficult to accept from her father who, genuine as he is in his encouragement, is supposed to say those things.

And while these motivational speeches are simplistic, focused on the power of positive thinking, they consistently reveal a girl finding ways to keep hope alive, constantly demonstrating a belief that she will get through this, that there are lessons to be learned here. Establishing a form for her talks, she is developing a meditative practice. From that “Hey, guys!” opening to the liturgical benediction—an “OK” sign and the salutation “Gucci!“—she is crafting variations on a form. She is cultivating skills. She is finding her voice.

A movie bent on crowd-pleasing would fast-forward and show us a grown-up Kayla whose web series has gone viral and made her a star. Nope. This isn’t that kind of movie. When good things happen for Kayla, they don’t feel programmed; they feel surprising. In an inspired tangent, Kayla gets an opportunity to “shadow” a high-schooler, who assures her that she will survive this difficult season. It’s an unlikely connection that feels absolutely real in its unpredictably, in its unexpected blessings, and in the unexpected peril that presents itself when she finds herself in unfamiliar, unfriendly circumstances.

A glimpse of the future? Kayla “shadows” a high schooler.

The movie concludes not with a Napoleon Dynamite talent show, not with Kyla winning the heart of her dream boy, not with the emotional high of a diploma. It ends with a surprise too good to spoil—let’s just call it “The Chicken Nuggets Scene”—that may be my favorite big-screen conversation of the year, a joy in its spontaneity. And then it guides us with Kayla across a threshold and into the next chapter.

We might read the conclusion as cynical, suggesting that life is an unending process of starting at the bottom of something, struggling, and then starting at the bottom of something else. Or, we might see it as meaningful reminder of Fred Rogers’ observation, so beautifully captured in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: “Love is at the root of everything—all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love… or the lack of it.”

Come to think of it, just as that powerful documentary asks adults to pay loving attention to the eighth graders in their lives, or the eighth graders still hurting within themselves, so Eighth Grade is ultimately about much more than adolescence. As a new professor among a faculty of seasoned experts, I feel like the new kid on the block all over again, embarrassing myself, learning by trial and error, hoping that I’m accepted and liked, hoping I seem confident when I’m not. In Kayla, I see who I was, but I also see who I am, and I’m reminded again of the value of honesty, courage, taking risks, and making something out of my hardships. In Kayla’s videos, she’s talking to herself, but like Fred Rogers, she’s also talking to us. The world can be big and intimidating and even cruel, but pay attention: It might yet still become a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Here’s an idea: Maybe Burnham could make this a series, something along the lines of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. What I wouldn’t give to revisit Kayla on her last week of high school, so I can learn alongside her some more.


So, what happened when I jumped into the pool?

Hoo, boy… I’ll tell you.

The sunlight was camera-flash fierce. The impact was like a gunshot. The splash soaked everyone around me. I remember feeling an instant of relief: My body was in the water—it was blurred by the waves. I was in. I was okay. Nobody had laughed.

But then came the next instant of awful recognition: Like Linus clutching his security blanket, I was still holding tight to my towel. And before I could think what to do, the question on everybody’s mind splashed me from all sides: “Why did you bring your towel?

“So I could do this!” I announced, in a moment of supernatural creativity. I started lashing out at them like Indiana Jones with a wet, stinging bullwhip. They scattered, opening up a moat around me. Unsurprisingly, nobody wanted to play this game. Neither did I. I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else.

I don’t remember how I survived it. I don’t remember anything else. I buried it all…

…until I saw Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.

Still, the movie made me more grateful for my middle-school years than I had been before. It made me grateful for how many loving, caring adults had surrounded me in those years. It made me grateful that I, like Kayla, found creative outlets in which to turn my suffering into art.

And it made me grateful, above all, that I was born before the Internet, digital devices, and social media. I was almost ignorant of pornography. (Kayla gets voted “Most Quiet” by her classmates. At 13, I could have been voted “Most Sexually Naive.”) I didn’t text anything regrettable that would become a matter of public record. I don’t have to live with a public museum of unwanted images. I don’t have to worry about what embarrassing moments other people my age might have on me. I was able to let the present become the past… and then the distant past, just the way God intended.

Like that pool party, which I had completely forgotten until this.

So, thanks, Bo Burnham. Jeez.