One thing is for certain: I am not a thirteen-year-old American girl. However, Bo Burnham’s amazing Eighth Grade showed me what it was like to be one!
I’m coming late to the party with this one. Eighth Grade got it’s UK premiere at Sundance UK almost a year ago along with Hereditary, First Reformed, The Tale and Leave No Trace, but I dismissed it then as yet another teen coming-of-age film and chose not to see it. That was a mistake. Eighth Grade, distributed by A24, is exceptional and it feels fresh and true in a way that will probably set a new bar for this film genre.
It’s the first feature by comedian Burnham, who is also not a thirteen-year-old American girl. In fact, he’s exactly mid-way between the ages of the teenage protagonist Kayla (Elsie Fisher) and her dad Mark (Josh Hamilton), he’s not a parent but he’s also too old to have grown up with Instagram. But somehow he seems to have captured the anxieties and social awkwardness of being a young teenager, perhaps because these feelings are universal and timeless, and are merely reframed by today’s amplifying technology.
The film is about Kayla’s last week of middle-school. Kayla is shy, slightly chubby, skin-blemished and awkward. She doesn’t have any close friends, but she regularly posts confident and chatty advice videos to her social media channel. She finds her well-meaning dad mortifyingly embarrassing, and she’d rather spend her time in her room on social media.
Eighth Grade is a sequence of incidents that depict her day-to-day emotional swings and pressures. Some of the earlier events are signposted by the film’s trailer, but the film is constantly engaging. The pacing, editing and production design seem effortless and the film’s structure is subtle with an emotional payoff.
The camera never leaves Kayla’s point of view. Young actress Elsie Fisher perfectly captures Kayla’s introverted angst. It’s an entirely believable depiction of the insecure unpopular teen who’s mortified when she’s voted ‘quietest girl’ at school and is only invited to her classmates’ parties when parents compel them. But she’s not played as a sad-sack; the persona she reserves for her videos is much more confident and warm. It also provides the film with a means to have introverted Kayla express herself to the audience.
The relationship with her father Mark is nicely balanced, he is the source of cringing embarrassment due to what she considers an intrusive interest in her life, and also of deep trust and affection as the one person she can turn to when things seem overwhelmingly terrible. Played winningly by Josh Hamilton, he is himself slightly awkward and well meaning, a single father who just wants the best for his daughter.
Eighth Grade is about confidence and the need to be yourself, a major teenage preoccupation. Kayla knows the value of self-worth, she espouses it in the constructed persona of her video posts and in a scattering of post-it note positivity, but in real life she is introverted and shy. You can sense her longing to fit in and enjoy herself, but her absolute dread and insecurity is palpable. Over the course of the film she finds both the courage and encouragement she needs, although it’s not an easy journey.
Burnham’s direction is understated and the film is quietly affecting. He downplays big moments so their cumulative impact is more subtle. There’s a tremendous two-part scene where she unexpectedly encounters her secret crush Aiden Wilson (Luke Prael) alone at the pool party. She’s been hiding from the others. After a brief, awkwardly funny tongue-tied conversation, Aiden suggests she joins the others in the next room where they’re in full-flow karaoke. Rather than sneak in at the back, Kayla now with uncharacteristically buoyant confidence walks straight in, takes the microphone and sings her heart out.
It’s clearly an important moment for her, but we don’t hear her performance we only see it, the soundtrack music plays instead. It’s a subtle directorial touch, and it works perfectly because hearing the actual performance would probably dilute that elation.
At other times, the film is more directly expressive. Kayla feels deeply insecure when she first arrives at a pool party that she doesn’t want to attend. She knows that she’s only been invited under duress by Kennedy the popular birthday-girl. At first, she’s frozen at the patio window, looking in terror at the popular, confident teens having fun in the pool. Then, having summoned up enough courage to go out, the camera follows Kayla closely behind as she walks from the house. We feel the terror in her every step, accompanied by a soundtrack reminiscent of a horror film score. In her green bathing suit, Fisher’s awkward stiff body language acutely expresses her self-consciousness. The walk seems to last forever, although the entire scene is probably less than a minute.
Although the film is a sequence of small events, there’s a pivot in the narrative when Kayla befriends Olivia (Emily Robinson), an older girl who she meets at a high-school shadow-day. Olivia likes Kayla and gives her the affirmation that she needs. Kayla is elated, it’s almost like a crush. She is invited to hang out with Olivia’s high-school friends, and boosting Kayla’s confidence. We are pleased to see Olivia’s easy-going enthusiasm, and it’s a joy to see Kayla’s response.
A far less comfortable element is Kayla’s naivety in her response to teenage sexual advances. Her sexual innocence is set up early – when one of the boys at school asks her if she gives blow-jobs she says ‘yes’, because it’s the answer that she thinks will impress him. Only after an internet search does she realise what she’s admitted to and the scene is played for awkward laughs. However, there’s a later, much darker scene when an older boy tries to manipulate and coerce Kayla into sexual activity, and her body language and discomfort is agonising. Somehow, she feels it’s for her to apologise for saying no. It’s a #MeToo moment about consent and the film handles it convincingly and sensitively. Growing up for Kayla also has its dangers.
The soundtrack is mostly contemporary pop music, the sort of music you’d expect Kayla and her classmates to listen to, although there’s also a surprisingly effective use of Enya’s Orinoco Flow to set the mood in one early web-browsing scene, a song I never expected to want to hear! Despite that one song, the soundtrack’s youthful currency helps define Kayla’s teenage generation. I was surprised to learn the soundtrack was composed by British composer Anna Meredith; I’ve heard some of her inspired genre-blending classical / electronic compositions in concert before, and this, her first film soundtrack, is a definite success.
Another key aspect of the film is the teen dialogue. Unlike, say, Heathers where teen slang is used to comical effect, Kayla and her contemporaries don’t speak in code. However, the rhythm of the script feels entirely youthful. The um dialogue is kinda like spoken like realistically and um believably, and Kayla’s minor vocal ticks seem to reflect her insecurity, although again the film wears lightly what could have easily been a wearing affectation.
The incessant use of social media is probably the biggest thing that separates the experience of today’s teenagers from that of most of the audience. There’s even a granular divide between Kayla and the high-school kids who are astounded that Kayla was using Instagram from fifth grade. With video posts, constant scrolling and Instagram updates, the film uses social media to both amplify Kayla’s feelings of awkwardness and give her an outlet for expression, or at least express the persona she wants to be.
However, despite the generational specifics, Burnham’s script captures the universal experience of being a teenager and it’s this that makes it eminently relatable; a time when feelings are heightened and anxieties are intensified. It feels authentic and naturalistic, the acting from all the young leads is effortless and believable, and the script feels real. There were many in the cinema audience who were in tears by the end. It’s a warm and joyful film, perfectly paced and emotionally engaging.
That’s it for today. I hope you found it helpful. Please remember to ‘follow’ my posts!
Eighth Grade is released in the UK on 26th AprilFollow @davefilmblog