By: Jessica Goddard
A film as heartbreaking as it is necessary, Bo Burnham’s feature directorial debut Eighth Grade earnestly tackles the varied intricacies of growing up in the age of smartphones, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram.
The events of the movie take place during Kayla Day’s last week of eighth grade, with time ticking to achieve some minor social triumph before the start of summer, and high school’s potential for reinvention looming. Kayla hates that her peers think she’s shy and quiet, and longs to make connections with her classmates and showcase her true self, who she believes could be talkative and outgoing and fun if given the chance. We know this because Kayla tells us directly, through the videos she records and posts to her underdeveloped YouTube channel, which are generally seen by no one (though her dad thinks they’re cool). All along, we root for the indisputably awkward and socially inept tween as she tries to put herself “out there”, establish a credible social media presence, and lay the ground work for a romantic relationship.
What unfolds is not so much comedy, but a deliberately cringey, uncomfortable sequence of events that you wish didn’t reflect reality, but you know probably does. On the one hand, Kayla’s consistent naïvety is endearing, but on the other, it’s emotionally draining to want so badly to protect the innocence and perseverant optimism of this well-meaning kid.
Here, Eighth Grade takes an interesting position – our proxy obviously doesn’t interpret her environment as cynically as we do. She doesn’t regard her saturation in apps and selfies and social media at age thirteen as something toxic, or worrisome, or decidedly unnatural. To her, these things are obvious and normal and indispensable; which is why many scenes are difficult to watch. The script is past wondering whether this new culture “is a good thing”, and instead assumes the technology is here to stay while exploring what that means for those who are no good at participating in its game.
From a filmmaking perspective, it’s remarkable that a 27-year-old man who made his name in comedy is able to so intuitively write and tenderly direct this particular story with such revolutionary poignancy. Almost every scene in this movie is a stellar work of art, owing massively to the performance of Elsie Fisher in the starring role.
At times the movie goes a little farther than it needs to – introducing elements of danger that aren’t necessary and playing up the cruelty of Kayla’s peers – but mostly Burnham keeps it real, which is fiercely effective. Often overwhelmingly so.
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Jessica Goddard: @TheJGod