Eighth Grade

Review by Hannah Woodhead @goodjobliz

Directed by

Bo Burnham

Starring

Elsie Fisher Josh Hamilton

Anticipation.

Decent buzz from Sundance. Consider us hyped.

Enjoyment.

A beautifully gentle and non-judgemental portrait of a teenage girl.

In Retrospect.

Many filmmakers have tried and failed to do what Burnham has achieved in this remarkable debut.

Comedian Bo Burnham presents an intimate and engaging portrait of modern teenage life.

To be a 14-year-old girl is to exist in a strange state of limbo, caught between childhood and the beckoning adult world. The press would have you believe that kids today grow up too fast – they’re a new incarnation of the “accelerated youth” that Douglas Coupland talked about. Films made about millennials and post-millennials by filmmakers tend to approach the subject with a Jerry Seinfeld-esque “What’s the deal with social media?” slant.

Bo Burnham’s debut feature Eighth Grade thankfully takes a more thoughtful approach when it comes to capturing the reality of growing up in the new century. The film’s protagonist is Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), who is in her final week of middle school. Amid endless scrolling on social media, she records vlogs with titles like ‘How to be confident’ and ‘Putting yourself out there’ – ironically, giving advice on subjects she wishes to master herself. She’s unsure of herself and her place within the social hierarchy of her peers, yet her insecurities are never played for laughs in the way they are in so many other generic high school movies. Instead, Burnham’s approach is more sensitive, more heartfelt.

Burnham’s comedy credentials translate into scenes which show his adolescent growing pains, but the film belongs to young Elsie Fisher, and Josh Hamilton who plays her supportive (if not terminally embarrassing) father. There’s a tenderness that underwrites Eighth Grade’s comedy, ensuring we always laugh with Kayla rather than at her.

Close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots invite us into her world, as personal and intimate as the video blogs she films in her bedroom. Fisher encapsulates the awkward in-between of being 14, endearing and infinitely believable. In positioning Kayla as neither desperately uncool or staggeringly popular, Burnham has created a character who is much easier to identify with – the mundanity of her life is what makes Kayla so captivating.

Burnham’s affection for Kayla paints her as extraordinary in a very ordinary way – small details such as a creatively-decorated shoebox or post-its on her wall hint at her talents and ambitions, but she’s never larger-than-life. Eighth Grade isn’t about a major transformation, just about many minor ones.

So much thought and care has gone into the film’s composition, from framing Kayla in the centre or on the sidelines depending on her confidence within a scene, to Anna Meredith’s synthy score. A scene in which Kayla attends a pool party hosted by a popular classmate is framed as a terrifying club scene with a thumping bassline, and when Kayla sees her crush, the heart-stopping, stomach-churning agony she feels is reflected in the dub-step overlay. The music is used as a way of expressing personality and emotion, much in the way teenagers communicate with playlists and pop-culture references (and Eighth Grade’s got plenty of those too).

Capturing the nature of being young at the present moment through a peppering of images, memes and current social media platforms might mean Eighth Grade is at the risk of dating quickly, but it’s more useful to view these references as a sort of cinematic time capsule. The film speaks to a very specific period in Western history – we see this when Kayla’s class are laconic during an active shooter drill. That’s just part of the American school system now.

It’s this sense of timeliness and timelessness which elevates Eighth Grade to greatness. Although it is very much a film about being 14 in 2018, it speaks to a more universal version of teendom. Kayla’s experience with a pushy older boy in the back of an SUV and her fraught relationship with her single-parent father reflect the perils of youth with a rare compassion, reminding us how fragile youth is, but also how optimistic and full of possibility our formative years can be.

Published 13 Jul 2018

Tags: Bo Burnham Eighth Grade

Anticipation.

Decent buzz from Sundance. Consider us hyped.

Enjoyment.

A beautifully gentle and non-judgemental portrait of a teenage girl.

In Retrospect.

Many filmmakers have tried and failed to do what Burnham has achieved in this remarkable debut.

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