2018 | rated R | starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton | written and directed by Bo Burnham | 1 hr 33 mins |
From the very first scene of Eighth Grade the movie actively looks back at the viewer and plays a staring contest with us. It’s written in a language of honest, ultra-realistic cringe and in that spectrum by turns both funny and downright frightening, it dares us to look away. Looking back at us is Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who through a word salad of “like”s and “uh”s doles out pre-teen advise over her own Youtube channel to anyone who may or may not be watching. It is the movie in a nutshell. Adorable, awkward, sad, hopeful, satirical and sympathetic. Eighth Grade is cinema verite in how objectively it presents its characters, with it’s tones and meanings shifting as the light hits it based on what we bring to the table. It’s ironic that last week I saw Three Identical Stranges, a documentary that feels like a scripted thriller and this week Eighth Grade is a scripted drama that feels like a documentary.
The debut film from comedian Bo Burnham, the film is crafted like a master magician’s illusion where you can’t see the strings or slights of hand. Eighth Grade doesn’t feel like a work that was written and directed and edited. It feels like Burnham just slipped into the head of a 13 year old girl and put that experience on film. Kayla starts her final year in middle school opening up a time capsule from her 6th grade self, fantasizing about a boy in class, being forced to go to parties with girls who hate her and despite all that feeling hopeful about the impending leap to high school. She is voted Most Quiet of her class and explains that being quiet is a choice in overlays of her Youtube advise that she herself may not actually be taking. The movie doesn’t have an outlined “plot” per say, but is doesn’t lack momentum in a Boyhood fashion. It thrusts forward on her latest desire to express herself each inspiring the next and the next. It lays bare the experience of middle school in all of its ugliness while also being a heartwarming father/daughter story.
A lot of recent movies have touched on the effect of social media on millennials, but nothing so far has plunged so deep into this pool. The biggest compliment I can give this movie, among many thoughts it provokes, is that it made me rethink how I was seeing social media on film. Burnham shows an entire generation of kids with their heads down in their phones, silently playing games, liking instagram photos and watching videos. He lets this play out as absurd or as necessary as the viewer wants to take it. The movie’s most cinematic moment has Kayla escaping dinner table interaction and retreating into her bedroom and into her phone a sequence set perfectly to Enya’s Orinoco Flow. He portrays smart phones not as inherently harmful or great. He shows teenagers – who another movie would just write off as brain dead slaves to getting likes and views (The Circle)– as a generation that has just funneled that expression into another medium. Kayla is quiet but has an active, creative mind that spins and struggles to explain the world around her and her place in it. It tapes into the Facebook zeitgeist of 2018 in the same way Up in the Air did with the economic collapse of 2008. This movie presents both a timeless look at youth and acts as it’s own time capsule.
So how does this little movie that isn’t tightly scripted and doesn’t knock us out with cinematic tricks become such a knockout? Burnham has made a movie where every little note is hit to perfection. Pull back and compare Eighth Grade to other teen or high school movies. Since American Pie set a cartoonish, glossy tone for the teen comedy back in 1999 we’ve seen a more recent resurgence in these movies that swing the pendulum in the other direction into wit and realism. From Boyhood to moodier films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Paper Towns and that movie where Shailene Woodley had cancer to the witty The Edge of Seventeen. Like last year’s Super Dark Times, but even more so, Eighth Grade is that movie stripped of all glossy studio trappings, stripped them down to the studs. To the raw nerve. Nobody has glib dialog, snarky teacher friends who look out for them or conveniently finds love and easy sex. It’s just awkwardness and visible acne. It’s also the most accurate version of a lame, oppressive school environment since Election.
In a time when our movies have been poisoned by the politics of representation we’re told that women can only best direct movies about women and men can only direct movies about men. Yet this year we had Jennifer Morrison (a woman!) direct an thoughtful look at masculinity and purpose in Sun Dogs and Burnham (a man!) crafting the most relatable movie about young girls I’ve ever seen. In art and movies, representation is what you need only when you don’t have empathy.
Eighth Grade manages to be heart-breaking and funny, melancholy and hopeful, all at the same time. How you relate to this movie, and how much you like it, may rest entirely on how you feel about Kayla (Fisher doesn’t seem to be acting, which is perfect). I adored it. The intimate way that Burnham puts this movie together makes it seem like there is no barrier between us and her. We are there, cringing alongside her every step of the way. One of the very best movies of the year and a high water mark for modern teen movies.