Movie Review: Comedy/Drama – Eighth Grade
Directed by Bo Burnham
Written by Bo Burnham
Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Jake Ryan, and Emily Robinson
“The horror. The horror.”
Joseph Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz may have been bewailing the darkness of his own colonial depravity when he uttered those legendary words in The Heart of Darkness, but he could just as easily have been talking about life in the eighth grade. I speak from personal experience. For me, the nightmare of eighth grade began, existed in, and emanated hellishly forth from gym class. I was the puny one, the last to finish races, the last chosen for team sports, the kid whose head, perched precariously atop a thin and flimsy neck, was the primary target of gleeful bullies during weekly games of dodge ball. (Tip for similarly afflicted dodge ball targets: Stay away from the wall!) But the humiliation didn’t end there. I had other classes with those guys and they made sure to daily remind me, their girlfriends, and the rest of the school, that I was a tantalizingly easy target for humiliation.
The victim of teenage angst in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, is 13-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a modern-day middle schooler who hasn’t yet figured out how to fit in. Known among classmates, to her utter embarrassment, as the quiet one, she’s anything but shy on her video blog where she dispenses, to an audience of few to none, wisdom about growing up and breaking out of one’s shell, subjects she knows little about. The video blog posts act more as motivations for Kayla’s future actions than as wisdom dispensed from experience. Her unrealistically patient father (Josh Hamilton), worships her and sensing her unhappiness, encourages her to “put herself out there,” to make new friends. But Kayla is so buried in her smart phone-centered shell that she refuses to listen, initially at least. When the mother of a fellow student, the eyerolling brat, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), invites her to a birthday party, Kayla is reluctant to go, knowing full well Kennedy’s disdain for her, but in a moment of bravery, buoyed by the knowledge that brooding heartthrob Aiden (Luke Prael) will be there, she concedes to her father’s wishes and decides to attend. The party is predictably soul-crushing, yet the seeds are planted for Kayla’s eventual growth into a more confident state but not, of course, without a few snags and crises on the way.
The film’s depiction of teenage angst and its attempt at a heartwarming father-daughter resolution are standard youth movie material. But Burnham’s wickedly funny depictions of eighth grade behavior and his spot-on portrayal of the impact of the modern world on teenagers and classroom life distinguish Eighth Grade from countless other films with similar themes. Among the film’s many memorable images, Burnham scatters hilarious shots of the behaviors of those for whom the title of “middle schoolers” is comically appropriate. Caught halfway between the unruly children of grade school and the young adults (in theory) of high school, they fiddle with retainer rubber bands, stretch gum out of their noses, and make funny faces, yet make grim jokes about school shootings and discuss blowjobs under their desks during a drill. Kayla’s first glance at the dreaded pool party, shot through the protective shield of sliding glass doors is amusingly filmed in a masterful montage of early teen absurdity. Burnham also pokes fun at adults, including Kayla’s father, and the school principal (the hysterically clueless Greg Crowe), who, having limited knowledge of teen slang and tropes, attempt to relate through lame imitation.
Equally striking, if less humorous, is Burnham’s depiction of the complex details that now make up modern teenage life. Smart phones, social media, active shooter drills – they’re all here. Teens stare like zombies into their phones, oblivious to the world outside of social media, living their lives online instead of the real world, something many adults, including myself, are guilty of as well. In another brilliantly crafted montage, Kayla’s online life is scanned through the images she sees on her phone. Blog posts, Tweets, and endless video clips collide in a series of pans, fades, and edits, to the tune of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” It’s the perfect visual representation of the big blur of useless information into which it all seems to fade in real life. Kayla’s detachment from her classmates and her father form a direct partnership and viscous circle with her absorption in social media and that’s a clear theme here. Considering that millennials are often judged, both fairly and unfairly, as the generation of spoiled, unprepared brats whose parents told them they were special (As a boomer, I can’t claim to be much better), it’s intriguing and more than a bit frightening to speculate how this generation will turn out. If the growing threat of global warming and political upheaval makes technology less available, will they be able to survive? Or will they be uniquely able to flourish in the ever-changing world of technology?
Burnham, a comedian who first rose to fame as a wildly popular YouTuber knows this territory well having produced his first video at the age of 16. At the still-tender age of 28, he’s directed this, his first feature film, with the confidence of a veteran. His script, while less sophisticated than his direction, relies too much on clichés and stock characters, but does provide growth in its lead character that, if overly announced and lacking in subtlety, still delivers some satisfaction. But the film is not without its annoyances. An amateurish score draws too much attention to itself. Maybe it’s meant as way to express the clunky innocence of youth. But it sounds like it was composed and recorded on one of those preprogrammed home keyboards you can buy on TV shopping networks for $99. And Kayla’s incessant babbling, her endless “likes,” “you knows,” and “uhs,” delivered with chattery perfection by Fisher, are likely to get on the nerves of anyone over 20. But that’s as much a testament to Burnham’s and Fisher’s accuracy as it is to the ear numbing banalities of teenage speech.
There’s no question that today’s students face darker times than my generation did at that age. School shootings were inconceivable then, the threat of global warming, while present, was not as ominous, and my generation’s corrupt president did not seem to threaten the very existence of democracy as the current generation’s corrupt president, though we did have the Cold War and the ever present threat of nuclear war. (Duck and cover everyone.) But eighth grade was and is thankfully, the last age of youth when we are largely oblivious to the terrors of the real world and our big concerns are still who’s got a crush on whom and will we be cool enough to escape ridicule. And I suspect that in the future, much of the movie’s portrayal of technology will seem dated, even quaint, should we make it that far as a culture with our freedoms intact. But all of this will likely be just as irrelevant as the difference between the souped-up, high-tech world of Kayla and the low-tech world of my early teens, because no matter how much the environment changes, the awkward agony of eighth grade will always remain the same.