One of the things that Bo Burnham (who wrote and directed Eighth Grade) and Greta Gerwig (who wrote and directed Lady Bird) share in common is an ability to sidestep their inexperience deftly. In Lady Bird, Gerwig loaded ungainly exposition into the mouths of unanticipated characters. In Eighth Grade, Burnham establishes his street cred early on. The grown-ups do the dab and call the reproductive system “lit”; they broaden the generation gap with acts of cultural appropriation. So, within a few minutes, he expels the olds—literally takes them out of focus—save for Kayla’s father, who is teed up for a big reveal. The message to young audiences is clear: despite the calendar, Burnham is no ordinary adult. Neither was Mr. Rogers.
I like Burnham and I like Eighth Grade; he has, and it shows, a great deal of talent, judgment, and sympathy. But however much the film (like Lady Bird) succeeds on its own terms, I do not find those terms very compelling. Both of these chronicles of adolescent life were made by young filmmakers (Burnham was born in 1990, Gerwig in 1983) who became well-known early in life; both of their movies are kind. If one had to sum them up in a single image, it would be the gimlet-eyed emoji. But their protagonists don’t exist to change, even if they grow up; they exist to be affirmed for who they are. (In the same vein, Kayla’s father—Josh Hamilton—exists to affirm; outside of his daughter, he has no life, the implication being that this is how Kayla sees him.) This mechanism blandishes older viewers as well: it’s like a “yassss queen” projected backward to our darling, fledgling selves.
That being said, I think that knowing when to play to one’s strengths is undervalued, just as a gift for immersive empathy is rare in a comedian. Burnham’s rapport with Elsie Fisher, as Kayla, is truly special—even if one takes John Hughes and Molly Ringwald as a benchmark. Compared to The Breakfast Club, Eighth Grade is loosely structured; it seems linked to Kayla’s nervous system. Where Hughes blamed parents for their children’s woes, Burnham shirks adults altogether—in part, I think, because he doesn’t like to point fingers. Youth exculpates Kayla and (most of) her peers. His goal, as I see it, is to give them a safe space to try on different personas.