Wow. I don’t miss eighth grade. If it is anything like the superficial chaos in Bo Burnham’s debut feature film, then I really don’t miss it. Because another apt title for this movie could be: “Why You Don’t Give Eighth Graders Smartphones.” Critics have been raving about this coming-of-age story for weeks now, and in some cases, it’s easy to see why. But in others, there are just a few too many coincidences, conveniences, and worst-case scenarios that rob this film of the authenticity it so admirably strives for.
Burnham provides an analysis of youth culture through Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an eighth grader trying to survive her last week of middle school. Kayla spends an ample amount of time on Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube, painting a personality of confidence and poise, when in reality she is reserved, introverted, and terrified of social interaction. The film is marked by her short YouTube monologues about “being yourself,” and the messages she preaches often contradict her onscreen behavior. This simple dynamic is brilliant on both Burnham and Fisher’s part. Fisher is a promising young actress whose character is difficult to root for at times (and Fisher’s fully aware of this), nailing the awkward confidence and excitement that comes with being 13, while Burnham is a superb writer/director, staging these tricky situations.
A particular situation that Burnham and Fisher handle perfectly is a hopeful scene where Kayla talks on the phone with her high school “shadow,” a senior named Olivia (Emily Robinson). As Olivia invites Kayla to hang out at the mall with some of her older friends, the eighth grader is ecstatic as she paces around her room, the camera claustrophobically close to her face. It’s a moment of pure, awkward joy that captures the excitement and hope when things finally start to go well for the shy and quiet.
I say “finally” because Burnham keeps one thing authentic throughout the whole film: middle school is a time where every day feels like the end of the world. When Kayla’s voted “Most Quiet” at the film’s beginning, she seems to take it like someone would a tragic loss. When she’s invited to a “cool” girl’s pool party, she hyperventilates. There’s a smidgen of social anxiety analysis that exists within Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” world (too bad it’s not dwelt on enough), but he nails the “stakes are always high” concept.
Unfortunately, this concept is a slippery slope, and there are times where “Eighth Grade” seems like a pile-up of worst-case scenarios. Instead of feeling like it’s the end of the world, it apparently is. The world is just that bad. At school, every other student is painted as a jerk, whether it’s the snooty girls who blatantly avoid Kayla to the point of ridiculousness, or the jock boy Aiden (Luke Prael). Aiden’s problem? He’s apparently familiar with explicit sex acts and is a Harvey Weinstein in the making, asking Kayla directly to perform these acts. There’s more where that came from, though I’ll save it for the sake of spoilers. At home, Kayla’s father (Josh Hamilton) is distant, giving his daughter unrestricted internet access and letting her act rudely without a second thought. Only when it’s convenient for the plot does he step out of his shell and do the job of parenting (with albeit, a brilliant speech, more credit to Burnham’s writing).
These kinds of exaggerated situations work in some cases but not in others. Overall, the mixing creates a disconnect between Kayla and the audience. At the aforementioned pool party, Kayla has extreme anxiety just entering the backyard. Yet, she seems to easily join a karaoke game without a realistic push. And then she’s back at school, avoiding eye contact and not following her own “be yourself” YouTube advice. Like adolescence itself, Kayla’s attitudes and personal growth fluctuate, but for a 90 minute film, there’s too much disengagement.
Aside from those glaring errors, “Eighth Grade” is a superb film in the technical department. It boasts fine editing work, utilizing long takes and sleek cuts to compare Kayla’s video topics with her life choices. The movie’s opening is one of the best ever constructed for a coming-of-age film, using Kayla’s first video as a backdrop while awkward eighth graders make each other (and the audience) uncomfortable with their antics, both online and off. And for a movie about youth and technology, “Eighth Grade” hits never-before-seen marks. We believe that these kids live for social media and nothing more. The movie unfortunately teeters off of this point near the end, which means it’s not the best work to analyze youth culture and smartphones (see Ingrid Goes West for a much more succinct analysis).
Also in the technical department is the musical score, and “Eighth Grade” absolutely kills it for the soundtrack. Composed and arranged by Anna Meredith, each synth track and groovy movement puts us right into Kayla’s dramatic mind when she’s confronted with awful social interactions. It’s electronica without being obnoxious, and provides the appropriate feel for a story about a girl growing up in the high-tech social media age. This is one of those rare soundtracks that I looked up immediately after seeing the movie.
Bo Burnham has a gem on his hands with this flick, and it’s a wonderful move from his stand-up comedy, especially since he began his career as a YouTube star. It’s exciting to see such a daring film get acclaim and praise, even though it’s not the most authentic youth film to come along.
FOR PARENTS: Take the R-rating seriously. For adults, it’s perfectly tame, but the reported free screenings for eighth graders aren’t good ideas. Some adolescents won’t have it as bad as Kayla. Therefore, they don’t necessarily need to see it until they’re past that stage.
An awkward but slightly comedic journey, “Eighth Grade” is too sensationalized at its thematic worst, but engaging and brilliant at its technical best.