In Eighth Grade, Burnham recognizes the pre-teen and teen landscape of 2018 is more intense, due to the pervasive influence of cell phones, voyeurism, self-promotion, and the unhealthy expectations brought on by constant peer compariIson. Whereas the characters in Clueless, Fast Times, Heathers, and its offspring Mean Girls have to navigate cliques, Kayla and her peers are on their own, in a digital war of all against all, preening, pretending, and pontificating as much to themselves as to an anonymous audience.
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Eighth Grade, the debut film from stand-up comedian-turned-director Bo Burnham is, on one level, entirely predictable. The protagonist, Kayla, about to graduate eighth grade and enter high school, is an awkward pre-teen outsider, played with note-perfect geekiness and unearned ennui by Elsie Fisher. She does what we expect – seeks the approbation of the most popular girl in school, moons over the class heartthrob, willingly blinds herself to his offensive behavior, and initially dismisses, then embraces the more authentic friendship of a fellow nerd. Burnham is mining familiar territory, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Clueless to American Pie, and perhaps especially Welcome to the Dollhouse. Like those movies, Eighth Grade takes us inside the painfully confusing and familiar world of growing up and trying to sort out whose opinion matters most (turns out, surprise, it’s your own). All this might suggest the film is derivative in the worst way. But Burnham’s take on the genre is brimming with fresh twists on well-worn coming-of-age tropes.
A heightened level of digital-age anxiousness is conveyed through a variety of directorial choices, first being the borderline assaultive but strangely irresistible and darkly comic synth music from Scottish musician Anna Meredith, in her first film score. When Kayla begins to try to make some moves to shed her insecurities, as when she finally makes it into the backyard birthday pool party of her fantasy friend/nemesis Kennedy (a convincingly vapid Catherine Oliviere), we get a sonic blanket of menacing pop fuzz on top of a heady montage that highlights the absurdity of 12-year-olds trying to act like they’re 25. The juxtaposition of Kayla’s acne-burdened, pear-shaped frumpiness with music that says “It’s on” makes for bittersweet irony that cuts into comical images (Kayla’s slow-motion POV as she catches first sight of her crush, Aiden, among the partygoers – a middle-school, gender-flipped, more innocent version of the Judge Reinhold/Phoebe Cates pool scene from Fast Times) but also signals the seriously tragic loneliness Kayla feels, mimicking her inner life, which is equal parts optimism and anxiety-inducing noise.
For the most part (with the overly sentimental ending as the unfortunate exception), Burnham avoids pat resolutions and teases us into believing we know what will happen next only to stay in scenes longer or leave scenes earlier than we anticipate. One of the funniest examples involves Kayla’s father, Mark (played for one-dimensional, clueless-dad laughs by indie veteran Josh Hamilton), who walks in on Kayla as she is about to conduct an inappropriate experiment with a banana. As with other scenes, it’s more daring for what doesn’t happen than what does, and Burnham stays in this scene much longer than we expect, making us feel every ounce of horrifying embarrassment alongside Kayla as we endure a hilariously drawn-out conversation between an out-of-touch dad and a mortified middle schooler. Burnham’s comic instincts give him the confidence to linger in these places, as he does later when Kayla and her father ride in the car on the way to a much-anticipated rendezvous with her new, older friend and high school “shadow day” escort, Olivia (played with winning earnestness by Emily Robinson) and her peers. He’s proud and happy she’s finally made some connections, and Kayla, like every kid her age, ever, cannot abide her dad being happy for her. She admonishes him for being “weird and quiet.” When he does talk, she then says he should stay “quiet, but not weird.” Then she tells him he’s doing it wrong because now he looks “weird and sad” and she can’t text her friends with him looking “like that.” Later, Kayla finally connects with her boy-nerd counterpart, Gabe (played with exquisitely realized dorkiness for the biggest laughs in the film by Jake Ryan). Again Burnham forces us to stay inside an uncomfortable moment for longer than we might want (a leitmotif for adolescence), as we wait for the end of a cringe-inducing, comical exchange between Gabe and Kayla about an archery award he “accidentally” leaves on the table for her to see, only to pretend he didn’t realize it was there. The best scenes in the film, like this one, intelligently mix humor with gravity, like the ridiculous but all too plausible active shooter drill endured by Kayla and her classmates.
Not every scene is played for laughs, though. In the darkest moment of the film, Kayla has to negotiate her way out of an unwanted sexual advance in the backseat of a predatory high-schooler’s car. Burnham remains here long enough to suggest that something truly awful is about to happen. The boy, Riley (played with ominous ambiguity by Daniel Zolghadri), is another one of the characters Kayla has briefly, prematurely befriended following her high school “shadow day”). When Kayla rebuffs his awkward attempts (his first move is taking his own shirt off in a forced game of truth or dare), Burnham resists giving the audience one of the stereotypical payoffs these scenes invariably rely upon (slap to face/fight back/escape; bad decision to appease in order to avoid violence; outright sexual attack). Instead, we are held in suspense, unsure of what will happen. Then Riley backs off before things even begin, and we are left with only the immature verbal abuse and shaming that he spouts at Kayla as he climbs back into the front of the car and drives her home (“I was doing it for you,” he says, explaining that he was only giving her a needed initiation for what it’s going to be like in high school). We feel sick with the understanding that young girls are subjected to all kinds of violence where obvious recourse doesn’t immediately suggest itself. We are made to vicariously experience the shame and confusion that follows an encounter that narrowly avoids physical attack, but nonetheless leaves a deep scar. When she (No, don’t!) begins to apologize to Riley, we comprehend some of the ugly details so often removed from what passes for the current national conversation about these issues. Riley is older; Kayla is younger, wide-eyed, and wanting to be included. He sees an opportunity and moves on her when she is at her most trusting and vulnerable. This scene succeeds all the more because the film’s tone, mostly whimsical to this point, intentionally under-prepares us to contemplate the serious consequences at stake underneath all the feigned ironic distance the kids are exhibiting. Being led to discover more depth at the same time Kayla does is one of the film’s major achievements.
Burnham recognizes the pre-teen and teen landscape of 2018 is more intense, due to the pervasive influence of cell phones, voyeurism, self-promotion, and the unhealthy expectations brought on by constant peer comparison. Whereas the characters in Clueless, Fast Times, Heathers, and its offspring Mean Girls have to navigate cliques, Kayla and her peers are on their own, in a digital war of all against all, preening, pretending, and pontificating as much to themselves as to an anonymous audience. After finding out that Kayla and her classmates first got Snapchat in fifth grade, one of her new high school acquaintances, perhaps three or four years older, bemoans a generational rift, saying she’s “totally wired differently.” That young people separated by only a few grades feel so completely alien to each other because of their different uses of social media again serves as both comic and tragic irony. Unlike lots of teen films, there’s no easy gag comedy here, bananas notwithstanding. The jokes are satirical, and like the best satire, stem from unflinching, honest appraisals. If you’ve seen this film’s trailer, you already know that a central motif is Kayla’s personal, YouTube-like video channel, where she seeks an outlet to work through her problems, talking to her viewers about her own social anxiety (her webisodes have titles like “How to Be Confident” and “How to Put Yourself Out There”). She ends all of her videos with her own version of a signature sign-off, saying, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, “Gucci” as she makes a “G” with her hand). The humor and pathos stem from the fact that she’s the last person to be giving this advice, but she is also the only one that can, because she needs to do it for herself. Burnham successfully uses these kinds of visuals (YouTube-like confessionals, SnapChat-like filters, and wildly inappropriate texts between kids) to imply they are too innocent to know how much they are damaging their innocence with technology, but also to suggest that with no escape from the world they were born into, the only way out is through. He smartly makes close shots of the technology a motif rather than a feature, a decision that allows the technology to exist more in the background than the foreground, despite its ubiquitousness in the lives of the characters. In the end, Kayla does eventually resist the undeserving heartthrob, confront the alpha female/mean girl, forgo (at least for now) her own video channel, and reconcile with her dad. In all but the last case, Burnham wisely ends these scenes in a messy way that retains the film’s carefully constructed integrity (i.e., a world where no one is really sure how to consistently, meaningfully connect anymore). Kayla’s attempt to tell off Kennedy just before the graduation ceremony isn’t a complete triumph; instead, it’s another stab in the dark at trying out new ways of confronting the world. Kayla both succeeds and fails as she stumbles her way through a protest about the value of the uncool and underappreciated birthday gift (an unapologetically anachronistic family-friendly card game) she had previously given to Kennedy. Burnham in all these situations cautiously flirts with, but narrowly avoids, an unearned conclusion (e.g., after Kayla’s big moment, Kennedy still doesn’t “get it” and has no reaction beyond momentarily looking up from her phone). Kayla’s father’s speech at the end (in which he explicitly affirms her value as a person and pushes back against her self-hatred) is a misstep, however. Here the film falters and interprets for us, rather than allowing us to make inferences from the more effective visual language achieved through the lingering awkward pauses featured so prominently up to this point. And the sanguine outlook it projects for the two of them involves a level of sentimentality that might have been more powerful if Burnham had allowed us to glimpse, rather than wallow. Still, as Kayla graduates from middle school, from insecurity, and from innocence, we sense that she’s moving into a future that might require more lies than truth to get by. In this way, Eighth Grade convincingly dramatizes the kinds of paradoxes the best adolescent stories are made of and works hard to drive an otherwise stale Hollywood storyline into the twenty-first century.
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All images courtesy of A24.