Bo Burnham studies tweenage angst in writing-directing debut
Eighth Grade (2018)
Directed by Bo Burnham
Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson
If you can come up with a moment in human existence more hellish in practice, more hilarious in retrospect than the entirety of the last year of middle school, I’m perfectly willing to argue the point with you. Sure, high school features far greater emotional highs and lows. But eighth grade has its own particular demonic twists, designed to hit you at a time at which you are singularly unprepared for them. High school, for example, is all about not being able to act on your hormones. It sucks. Eighth grade is all about not knowing what the hell hormones are in the first place. It’s worse.
You know who else thinks that? Bo Burnham. With his debut writing-directing effort, the internet-famous comedian, singer, songwriter, musician, rapper, actor, writer, director and poet (pretty sure I should hate him based on that résumé) displays a level of talent, maturity and empathy that his 228 million YouTube hits never even hinted at. Hilarious and painful and perfectly well-observed, Eighth Grade takes the tired “coming-of-age” indie dramedy genre and refreshes it for the iPhone age.
Our eighth grade tour guide here is Kayla (Elsie Fisher, who voices unicorn-obsessed Agnes in the Despicable Me series). The 13-year-old is in her final weeks as a middle schooler. High school looms on her horizon, offering some sort of relief from the draining emotional drudgery of middle school. You see, Kayla is a painfully introverted child. She’s got some clear social anxiety, zero friends and is being raised by a well-meaning single father (Josh Hamilton, “13 Reasons Why”) who doesn’t have the faintest idea how to really connect with a 13-year-old daughter.
A product of her generation, Kayla spends all her time glued to her cell phone and to social media. She even has a YouTube channel where she posts self-help videos about confidence and self-image. The cruel irony is, of course, that no one watches Kayla’s videos, and—IRL—she has precious little in the way of confidence or positive self-image. Instead, she mopes silently around the halls of school, mooning over the boy she has a crush on and trying to figure out how to initiate actual human contact.
One day Kayla is assigned to a high school shadow program where she’s supposed to follow a high school student and get a feel for what high school might be like. To her great luck, she’s paired with Olivia (Emily Robinson, “Transparent”), a friendly and enthusiastic teen who takes a shine to Kayla. Olivia’s cheerful descriptions of high school life actually give Kayla some hope for the future. The “joke” of it is, it’s high school—not the land of milk and honey. We’ve all been there. We all know what tortures are most likely awaiting Kayla in the four years to come.
For anyone who survived eighth grade (which we assume is everyone in the audience for an R-rated film), Eighth Grade is frequently painful to watch. Burnham must have had a hell of a time in middle school, because his memories of it feel vivid and veracious. He’s also obviously spent time studying the vernacular of today’s tweens. The often tongue-tied dialogue has all the authenticity of an ethnographic study. Kudos, of course, to the young lady who delivers most of it. Fisher’s performance is so open and honest that the film feels more like a documentary or a surreptitiously stolen video diary than a work of fiction.
Harsh as it is in its assessment of the Darwinian social experiment we call middle school, Eighth Grade has a warm undertow of compassion pulling it along. Kayla is a gawky adolescent, uncomfortable in her own pimpled skin, stumbling her way into young adulthood. The comforting, Hollywood-approved message, of course, is that “it gets better.” In reality, it does. And life will definitely get better for Kayla. Eventually. But maybe not tomorrow. And maybe not for years. Still, Burnham clearly has a soft heart for his characters. Unlike, let’s say Todd Solondz’ Welcome to the Dollhouse, Burnham’s work isn’t at all mean-spirited. Kayla isn’t hated by her classmates. She isn’t a flawed person. She’s simply invisible in a world driven by “followers” and “likes.” And yet, Burnham makes it easy to empathize with her. Deep down, Kayla has a lot of skills and coping mechanisms. An uncomfortable, pre-sexual encounter in the back seat of a car reveals that Kayla has more fortitude than she knows. And her videos, often serving as on-the-nose counterpoints to her pathetic social life, show that she wants to break out of her shell. She just hasn’t figured out how yet.
The story of Eighth Grade is humble, realistic and vignette-heavy in nature. The morals and lessons it lays out are small. In reality—unlike a lot of Hollywood films—ugly ducklings and late bloomers don’t transform overnight (and just in time to dazzle all their classmates at prom). Instead, they slowly discover who and what they are, and eventually gravitate toward friends/places/jobs that fit with that. The glory of middle school is that it eventually ends. So do all great tragedies in life. That’s the sort of funny-sad wisdom upon which Eighth Grade is built.