There’s a scene in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade that is more casually upsetting than anything you’re bound to see in any horror film this year. Positioned against the locker-lined walls of a middle school hallway, the mostly preteen student body watch as a body armor-sporting, boot-stomping maniac stalks it with a machine gun, nonchalantly plugging bullets into the heads of their peers. The victims slump over, entry wounds leaking brown blood that flows down between their eyes, as the shooter moves onward, picking his victims at random. Only, none of it is real. This is all part of a drill, preparing the kids and their teachers with proper procedure in case a madman actually does decide to pick up a firearm and make this institution of learning his hunting ground for the day. The gunman is actually a cop who’s been called in to deliver this startling life lesson, while the corpses are merely drama club volunteers, their faces painted with SFX make-up in order to lend a sense of severity to the exercise that would otherwise be lacking. The scene acts as a stark reminder that the children who populate Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade aren’t coming of age within an era of tornado drills or passed notes. This is a technological epoch, in which dick pics can be DM’d via Twitter and Instagram, regardless of age, and the Sex Ed video ends with the instructor informing everyone in the classroom that learning about their bodies is “gonna be lit.”
Movies about the trials and traumas of high school are a genre unto themselves, yet the even more fraught environment of middle school isn’t explored nearly as often. It’s not hard to understand why; a good deal happens hormonally between the ages of twelve and fourteen, and these happenings are difficult to dramatize honestly. Middle school is where the transition from childhood to young adulthood takes place, with all the doubts and insecurities and missteps which that entails. Tackling these awkward stirrings in the modern age with the advent of social media, YouTube and other widely available/easily concealable media is particularly perilous given that you must cast kids in these roles.
Cribbing more from the cringy French dramas of Catherine Breillat than the warm and fuzzy ‘80s coming-of-age staples of John Hughes, Eighth Grade is the painfully real attempt at comprehending what it means to grow up in a generation overwhelmed with information, which in turn transforms nearly everything about the process into a competition. For Kayla (Elsie Fisher)—an awkward, pimply, baby-fat laced girl who may as well be invisible to most—the race always seems to be three steps ahead of her current pace. Eighth Grade follows a week in the life of this 13-year-old girl nearing the end of middle school and dignifies the awkward anxiety that colors every minute of it. Kayla makes her own inspirational YouTube videos, giving nondescript advice that she reads off flashcards to a meager online audience. These videos never stray into self-pity, rather, they allow Kayla to express and understand her own raw and confused thoughts while providing a mirror for others living through it.
Kayla doesn’t have all that much to lose in terms of social standing. She’d love to be friends with the popular girls, but she looks at herself in the mirror and sees acne and a body type that is not optimal by society’s standards. Physically, it’s rare and refreshing to see characters like Kayla who have visible acne, and Eighth Grade instantly feels fresh by trusting 15-year-old Elsie Fisher (13 at the time of filming) as the lead. Fisher is a real discovery as Kayla and makes her impression in a quieter manner than many breakout child actors. She inhabits Kayla so completely that she never seems to be acting, from her outspoken private moments to the withdrawn demeanor with which she faces the world beyond her bedroom. Her performance doesn’t beg for sympathy but earns it via an honest and true sensitivity to what Kayla is going through.
Comedian-turned-remarkably-promising-first-time-feature-filmmaker Bo Burnham is a revelation here as well. How did a former Vine celebrity and self-deprecating straight, white male comedian so expertly pinpoint the complexity of a nervous teenage girl in his first 90-minute feature? In Eighth Grade, he unflinchingly and unsparingly follows a young girl on the outside of middle-school society while avoiding either sentimentalizing her or descending into callous misanthropy. Through Kayla, Burnham shows the kind of bravery you need at an age where you learn by making the most embarrassing mistakes. As teenagers go to war with an audience of silent scrollers online and dead-eyed faces at school, growing up in the age of the Internet is both a love affair and a waking nightmare.
Teenagers in 2018 have a wider sociological understanding than ever before because of their means of communication. For Kayla, the virtual backdrop of social media serves to allow her to better understand society and her place in it, rather than just epitomizing the stereotypical prejudice about how little depth teenagers have. She survives adolescence on the Internet; finding comfort in Buzzfeed Disney quizzes, Instagram-stalking the boy she has a crush on, and eventually recording a time capsule video for her older self to look back on. While Kayla is obsessed with the calamity of making friends and the way she’s seen by other people, it’s an obsession that allows her to exist as different versions of herself. “There’s the school you, the movie you, the pool you, the weekend you,” she explains in one of her videos. This distinction between several personas and the expectations we create allows a richer definition of the labor of teenagehood, and the efforts involved to keep up appearances. For kids raised on the internet, Eighth Grade exposes the discrepancies between how we present ourselves online and how that translates in person.
Burnham’s gift is that he can lace Eighth Grade with fears and insecurities while maintaining a sense that things will work out okay for Kayla, reflecting the occasional optimism she allows herself to feel. He also has a real knack for capturing the way modern kids speak, to each other and to adults, particularly evident in Kayla’s exchanges with her single father Mark (Josh Hamilton). Just as she struggles with communication with her peers, Mark hasn’t figured out how to talk to Kayla as a burgeoning grown-up rather than a child. The culmination of their onscreen relationship is profoundly moving, pointing the way to a new understanding between the two.
Psychologically, coming-of-age movies often bear a disparity between the feeling of anguish that is generally established as the default trait of the characters and the way that such movies are then labelled as comedies—boasting slapstick disaster situations. For Kayla, a pool party, which would elsewhere provide the butt of a cult joke, now feels like the crux of a movie that asks for teenagers to be taken seriously. Neither the way she feels about her skin-hugging neon green swimsuit nor the severity of her panic attack in the cool girl’s bathroom feel cheap or laughable. Far from being a forgettable mumblecore replica, the scene gives this conventionally inoffensive backdrop a searing brutality.
Burnham proves to be a born filmmaker with sequences like this, exhibiting an unerring sense of how to use the camera and editing for maximum-but-understated impact. A montage of the social media in which Kayla is immersed, set to the tune of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” may sound like an on-the-nose cliché or self-parody, but in the hands of Burnham and his visual team, it’s a marvelous mood-setter. It makes sense that Burnham would hire a cinematographer (Andrew Whehde) who’s mostly known for shooting documentary shorts and stand-up specials, because there’s a spontaneous slice-of-life air that inhabits every single one of Eighth Grade’s frames. The camera is often fixed on Kayla, though it’s never intrusive, gliding behind her as she navigates the halls. Sometimes Whehde’s lens even takes the students’ point of views, as they stare from assembly room chairs at the goofy Principal, who informs the student body they’ve got one week left before graduation, and then (gasp) it’s time for high school. And as sunny as the aforementioned pool party at the popular girl’s house might’ve seemed on the surface, the dancing, splashing peers in this chlorinated pond are all observed with the leering wariness of a nature documentarian, waiting for his subjects to strike. These are the beasts that keep Kayla from ever feeling comfortable in her own skin, and Burnham’s detached style makes us feel every ounce of fear that inhabits the girl’s gut.
Scoring it all is a discordant assault of electronic music, courtesy of Dheepan composer Anna Meredith. The tunes alternate between mesmerizing and destructive, as Burnham uses the cues to both zero us into Elsie’s fixation on her crush or jar us out of the complacent thinking that children are growing up in any sort of safe space these days. As funny as Eighth Grade often is, the music might be the key component to clueing us in on Burnham’s true intent. This is a loud, harsh, driving examination of the environment we’ve created for our youngest generations, where something as awful as school shootings can be shrugged off if our crush is hiding under the desk next to us. Many think that the world is a worse off place than it’s ever been, and that those learning to live in it nowadays may have it harder than any generation who previously came up. After the masterfully maintained air of dread Eighth Grade establishes early on, it’s tough not to believe that Burnham agrees with this sentiment.
The unassuming honesty of Eighth Grade is in allowing a change in the way teenagers exist on film: by letting every emotion finally feel as important as it does when you’re growing up and by showing how every bad day feels like the end of the world. Burnham and Fisher have captured the tiny milestones of teenage life with lightning precision. Everything that happens to Kayla throughout this week—as trivial as it all may seem—is formative. It’s been six years since I was in middle school, yet I still possess a crystalline recall of every triumph or humiliation I experienced back then. Parents will tell you these moments aren’t the end of the world, but, in that moment, they absolutely are, and they will resonate with you for the rest of your life—only now there may be permanent video forever at the ready to fill in the most excruciatingly awful details your brain jettisoned for survival’s sake. Eighth Grade isn’t nostalgic or melodramatic, but rather an honest snapshot of teenagehood in 2018.
Image Credits: IMDb