As adults, we all become familiar with something called “Impostor Syndrome”.
It’s that unnerving feeling that no matter how experienced or intelligent we might be, that we are essentially living life under false pretenses, with the tissue-thin veneer of accomplishment about to ripped off us at any moment.
For most of us it’s nothing but mind games; even so, it takes its toll and in Bo Burnham’s masterfully-insightfully and emotionally-authentic debut feature Eighth Grade, we see where it possibly begins as eighth grader Kayla (Elsie Fisher) struggles to reconcile the bravura and surety of her YouTube advice videos with the reality of her less-than-storied life at middle school.
A witty, sweet, bright girl with a good heart, Kayla, in her final week of middle school and staring the eve starker realities of high school right in the eye, is desperate to make a life for herself that matches the one she projects into her videos.
She’s acutely aware the two don’t match but then she is only a young teenager still trying to figure out life and its many contrary twists-and-turns.
Cast your mind back to those days, especially if you had a less than ideal schooling experience, and you will find a great deal with which to identify in this heartfelt feature that takes a almost-documentary style look at the way all of us, but in this case, teenage girls, struggle mightily to balance finding acceptance with being ourselves.
It’s not even remotely an easy undertaking, and as Kayla comes up against cool girls Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and Aniyah (Imani Lewis) and weedy “hunk” Aiden (Luke Prael), all of whom are just unsure of the next step forward though they would first die rather than admit it, she has to work out where she draws the line to find acceptance.
At what point, in other words, does she sell out herself, her heart, mind, and critically, in an age where “dirty pics” are a seedy currency all of their own, her body, to become one of the in-crowd.
It’s a battle for likability that never really goes away, especially in the corporate work environment, but in Eighth Grade, which is so agonisingly true-to-life at times in its awkward searching for self that you will cringe in searing recognition more times than you won’t, we see it in its rawest, most embryonic form.
What is affecting about Kayla is that she isn’t trying to be something she’s not much of the time.
It’s a given you’d think that she’d try to erect some sort of facade of erectability like Kennedy or Aiden, but for the most part, she is still delightfully naive enough to think that being completely yourself, and being accepted by others on that basis, is the way to go.
It’s just a matter of finding the right people.
Turning up at Kennedy’s pool party one Saturday, after a breathless invitation by her mother who has missed every last cue on clear and visible display, we also see another important part of what makes Kayla tick and what makes her so brilliantly-likeable.
Whether many other people might have recoiled and faded into the background never to be seen again until college, or beyond, Kayla, in a one-piece swimming suit where everyone else is in bikinis, walks into the throng of whooping and hollering and OMG-ing teenagers, gets into the pool and tries in her own quiet way to become a part of the scene around her.
She is comprehensively ignored of course save for goofily-unaffected Gabe (Jake Ryan), Kennedy’s cousin, who’s smeared in sunscreen and a “rashie” and who seems blissfully unaware, or at least, disconnected from the popularity contest as pool party fun taking place around him.
He likely is acutely aware of his place on the social pecking order, as is any teenager (and adult for that matter for what is working life but an extension of high school in more “mature” form?) but he’s made his accommodation, and perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, and he is right though Kayla hasn’t admitted this to herself yet, starts talking to his fellow outcast with happy abandon.
He is the counterpoint to all the social wheeling and dealing that so fascinates and absorbs Kayla, and understandably so since she’s not quite ready to give up on her dream of acceptability on everyone else’s terms but her own, and the person, who along with Kayla’s long-suffering but loving dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) proves pivotal in helping Kayla figure out, by film’s end, who she wants to be.
Ot at least, how she wants to go about being that person when she finally figures who they are exactly.
Eighth Grade is, in essence, a genuinely-affecting exploration of the journey we all take to finding that place that feels true for us and doesn’t feel like one big, soul-troubling game of “Impostor Syndrome”.
As the events of the final week play out, and Kayla has to grapple with the contents of her sixth grade time capsule and the video contained within which features a younger Kayla breathlessly expounding on all the great things her future self has likely done, we come to really know and like this young girl who is one of the good ones, someone who really does want to find acceptance, love and friendship but on the right terms.
That’s not to say she nails it every time, and much of the film’s running time focuses on the moments she stumbles and gets it wrong, and how she, and her dad in particular, help her pick up the pieces and move on, but she does have, as her father observes one night, a good heart that will take her far, regardless of the Kennedys and Aidens of the world.
The refreshing thing is that Eighth Grade doesn’t try for some life-changing epiphany-moment when everything suddenly becomes overwhelming better across the board; sure Kayla does come to some powerfully-quiet places of understanding, each delivered in the same sweetly-observed but honest way the rest of the film tells its story, but there’s also the great big questions of life still hanging over it.
Somehow though you get the feeling Kayla will figure it all out, well as much as anyone of us do, with Eighth Grade, with her life ending up a good dealer than the Kennedys and Aidens who may look like they have it all together but don’t, making the film an arrestingly-evocative quiet love letter to the people who, though they struggle like the rest of us to figure it all out, do get there in the end and succeed in ways not even they see coming.