Review: Eighth Grade

Released 13 July, 2018; Written and Directed by Bo Burnham; Distributed by A24; Runtime 1h 34m; Rated R

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Eighth Grade is the directorial debut of one Bo Burnham – yes, that Bo Burnham – and the film carries the same trademark observational wit as does his stand-up. It’s difficult to classify what Burnham does as “stand-up,” but rather as intricate performances more akin to theater, wherein he plays many roles and personalities to stab at society’s hidden insecurities from various angles. His proficiency on stage, what’s made him a stand-out comic for many young people, translates wonderfully to the screen.

I need to say this: This is a good movie. A very good movie. It’s as close to an honest portrayal of adolescence as an adult can make, and as honest a portrayal of the way adults handle adolescents as anyone could make. Everyone’s acting, trying to find their role and play their part. Burnham understands this better than anyone and it shows.


Plot

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Kayla Day is a young girl suffering from social anxiety. The type of social anxiety adults who peaked in high-school claim to have suffered, but more often inflicted on others. Kayla’s struggle to fit in defines her perception of herself. She hyperventilates in bathrooms before social interactions and has turned her bedroom wall into a vision board covered in sticky-notes – undoubtedly the advice she’s received from others and recites to herself. Like many who suffer from anxiety, she believes there is something inherently wrong with herself, but that a change in attitude or behavior can mend what she perceives to be broken. One change could precipitate a wealth of social-progress. She could have the happiness that others share on social media, which she obsesses over, if only she’d say the right thing at the right time to the right person.

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Despite her social trepidation and her reputation as the quietest girl in school, she posts videos on YouTube wherein she offers advice for personal empowerment. Each video she makes she closes with, “I hope you found this helpful,” and her catch-phrase, “Gucci!”

It’s obvious at a glance that only one or two people are watching her videos, and the advice she’s giving is clearly meant for herself to follow. Speak it and become it, fake it until you make – all common phrases hurled at struggling young teens. This movie, however, is too honest for that.

Bo Burnham wrote this, so it must be funny? Don’t worry, it’s hilarious, but not like his stand-up. The film’s humor comes only partly from the dialogue, but more from the honest-to-goodness interactions between the characters. We laugh as Kayla experiences her many brief coming-of-age moments – her innocence occasionally infringing on her social advancement. For all her meticulous calculation, she still stumbles over her words when she greets a cute boy. We are endeared to her because we remember those moments from our own lives, and we’re meant to. It’s a more potent nostalgia than the orgy of iconography on display with every reboot and remake currently on the market.

We feel Kayla’s successes and failures, because her motivations are our own. This pulls us in and occasionally disarms us – in typical Burnham fashion. There are scenes meant to alienate anyone older than Kayla. So strange is it to see these middle-schoolers go through a school-shooting drill, or to learn that they have had SnapChat since the fifth-grade. Despite these differences, we relate, but Burnham isn’t content to let us forget how difficult a time adolescence is.

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As an instructional video mentions before Kayla’s class, the changes going on inside of their bodies is “Going to be lit.”

Boys and girls are seeing themselves differently. Kayla has to adjust to new information as quickly as she receives it. She needs guidance and support, in different ways from different people, but isn’t certain what any of it would look like. She needs her father and some friends and herself, but she isn’t sure in which order and to what degree. It’s confusing, it’s painful, it’s horrifying. She is what she is regardless of what she tells herself, and I know I’m being vague, but to say much more about her emotional journey would rob you of any enjoyment from this film.

Burnham isn’t interested in the nostalgia or the role-playing as subjects, he isn’t even particularly interested in commenting on the dangers of social-media addiction. His film treats these facets of life as just that: part of the experience. Cell phones and self-loathing go hand-in-hand, but only because we all want to be the best, most idealized versions of ourselves. Before Iphones there were pocket-mirrors.

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These wants span generations, manifesting similarly down the pipeline regardless of whichever technophobia dominates the national conversation. There are certain universal truths to growing up, some of which are unfortunate. There are truths shown in the film about the tendencies of young girls, and of young boys. These are things beyond our control, and we fear them now as an audience watching Kayla experience them for the first time. But it’s these moments that elevate the film far above the typical sentiment of, say, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. The reality of growing up doesn’t happen around Kayla, for her to observe and make sense of privately, it happens to her. And to us, again.


Craft

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Elsie Fisher is incredible as Kayla Day, and Josh Hamilton as her father, Mark. Their relationship is the emotional anchor to the film. We don’t need much more than Kayla, stuttering and all, but having her father there, single and trying his hardest to stay as relevant in his daughter’s life as her phone, makes this all more enjoyable. He’s a good dad, something we’ve needed for a young-woman in a major release for far too long. Hamilton is tender and goofs off with adequate Dad-energy.

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He launches from Dad-like bewilderment into undaunted devotion to his daughter, sold with utter sincerity by Hamilton in the film’s most emotionally gratifying moments. He and Fisher sell their bickering with ease, their arguments with heartbreak, a struggle to understand one another – all of it. The chemistry is there and it’s wonderful.

As for Burnham’s direction and writing – the dialogue is a step above most else in the theaters. The last film I saw in the multiplex was Brad Bird’s The Incredibles II, and I have to say, for as entertaining as that movie was, I couldn’t understand what half the people were saying half the time. Burnham let’s his actors speak. His camera waits patiently as they stumble through lines, or struggle to find their words. There’s no cadence to much of the language here, as Burnham was surely striving for verisimilitude over any moral-messaging.

That isn’t to say Burnham doesn’t monologue through his character’s a tad. Kayla’s many YouTube videos act as voice-over for something else happening on-screen – her advice narrating her actions. This is fine, but every now and again the “just be yourself” sound-bites can be a distraction. Still, that’s barely a misstep in this stellar debut.

Burnham may have an eye for this, too. There are visual and sonic flourishes for certain characters and scene-arrangements that denote a studious craftsman.

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Aside from his writing, the middle-schoolers he’s created certainly look the part. They clutch bags of Doritos and tap away absent-mindedly on their electronics. They don’t fully understand sex yet, and they can’t help but to blow raspberries in class. That may be the greatest accomplishment of all of this: It just feels real. Burnham has created an eloquent and surprisingly well-arranged tableau of adolescence.


The Verdict

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Honestly, I could go on about this movie for some time, but I’ve rambled enough. It’s instantly relatable to some, and deeply to others. Performances are stellar in what may be one of the better directorial debuts of the last ten years. It touches on parenthood, the distances between generations both large and small, and how we learn to support one another and ourselves. Don’t approach this movie with the same mindset as you would an episode of Black Mirror, technology isn’t the enemy here – it’s always been people, and sometimes ourselves, but we are ours to save.

This movie will make you feel, and shouldn’t be missed. I can’t wait to own it. A24 Studios, keep doing what you’re doing (Here’s hoping Disney or Warner Bros. don’t nab Bo Burnham for some tent-pole film-by-committee in the coming years.)

4.5/5 – Outstanding

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