REVIEW: ‘Eighth Grade’ is Anxiety-Ridden, Hilarious and True

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A24 and writer-director Bo Burnham’s ‘Eighth Grade’ throws aside the expected tropes of most indie coming-of-age films and manages to not only be one of the most honest portrayals of youth, but it may be the first true film of the internet age.

Burnham started his career as a teenager on YouTube and by the time he was twenty years old, he had an immaculately produced stand-up comedy special. It does however feel woefully inadequate to call Bo Burnham’s work ‘stand-up comedy.’ His performances are a mix of original songs, dancing, sleight of hand, fourth-wall breaking and an autobiographical one-man show. Burnham is a wunderkind with a seemingly bottomless well of creativity so it was likely he would eventually try his hand at filmmaking, perhaps some magical realism musical comedy. ‘Eighth Grade’ is not at all what I expected him to choose for his first project. Not only because of subject matter, but its delivery is so much more grounded than his previous work. Bo Burnham has proven with this film that he can deliver more than witty and profane bombast. He is capable of deep empathy and wondrous restraint.

‘Eighth Grade’ is told entirely from the perspective of Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a refreshingly average young woman. Kayla’s unremarkable nature is one of the major ways that Burnham manages to make this film stand out from others. Youthful coming of age stories are nothing new in independent cinema. That descriptor alone conjures such a cascade of clichés that we are able to put together the film in our minds. Hyper-intelligent, misunderstood women and immature boys, precocious conversations with clueless fathers, quiet hunks who see a unique spark in our heroine, all of it set to gentle music. Maybe a ukulele. Almost certainly some Belle & Sebastian. These films, even when well put-together still suffer a curse of familiarity.

Kayla is not a genius writer/artist/musician nor is she a rebellious punk with a violent streak and wise beyond her years. She is not a cautionary tale or idealized version of how a writer saw her youth. Kayla is good-hearted and sharp. She is voted ‘most quiet’ by her classmates due to her almost-crippling anxiety. As we get to know Kayla we see that her anxiety is well-earned. She attempts to be outgoing but is usually met with contemptuous cruelty by those around her. On display here is one of the most pointed explorations of the true cruelty of social hierarchy: the vicious cycle. For whatever reason, Kayla is not accepted by her classmates. She is treated as an outsider which makes her retreat more and more into herself. When she attempts to “put herself out there” as her well-intentioned father (Josh Hamilton) says, she is met with awkward and scornful looks. This is the cycle. People don’t like the quiet person, but they also don’t want the quiet person to say anything either. The truth is: some people just aren’t liked. This isn’t fair or right, but it’s true. And moreover, Kayla is painfully aware of her place in the unspoken playground classism.

This is made clear when popular girl Kennedy’s mom (Missy Yager) invites Kayla to Kennedy’s birthday party, to the dismay of both Kennedy and Kayla. To Kennedy (Catherine Olivere), the idea of having the weird, quiet girl at her party is repulsive, and Kayla is (like most children) fully aware that she is being invited out of pity (and also because the mom may have designs on her father.) ‘Eighth Grade’ is not simply about the uncomfortable moments of youth, but specifically about what it’s like to be a good-hearted and perceptive outsider. This is a far more relatable position that the popular mean girl and in that relatability is much of the magic in this experience. Bo Burnham has never been an 8th grade girl. He certainly has never been an 8th grade girl in today’s world. But he knows what it’s like to be anxiety-ridden and shunned into silence and in that honest connection, he manages to connect to many of us.

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It is Elsie Fisher who sells all of this. Burnham has said in interviews that it was irresponsible to have greenlit this film before casting Fisher. Truly she so embodies the role of Kayla that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Fisher plays Elsie with such heartbreaking fragility that it forces a palpable empathy from the audience. Kayla makes YouTube videos where she tries to offer help to other people who may struggling in life. One of the first lines of the film, she says that her videos are not getting as many views as she would like and asks her audience to share the videos with friends. It is only later that we look at her YouTube channel and see that most of her videos have 0 or 1 view. This is a crushing moment as we realize that she has been speaking to an audience that is not there. Kayla is not able to find acceptance online just as in real life.

‘Eighth Grade’ does not get lost in seriousness. It’s also extremely funny. I laughed out loud for much of the runtime. In particular one moment when Kayla is practice-kissing the back of her hand while looking at photos of her crush that made me crack up for minutes after. Burnham’s comedy background is never leaned on too-heavily although you will be charmed by the impossibly over the top Gabe (Jake Ryan.) You’ll know him when you meet him.

Beyond the perpetually acute observations of youth, one of the most poignant ways in which ‘Eighth Grade’ succeeds is the way it explores the way that the Internet and social media pervade every aspect of today’s society. Here we have a generation who never knew a world without Facebook (although as mean girl Kennedy says “who uses Facebook any more?”) For Kayla, social media is an extension of herself. She uses Snapchat filters to take selfies and uses Instagram to spy on the world of the cool kids who don’t accept her. There is a particularly stunning sequence which shows her lost in an internet rabbit-hole. Frenetic close-up images fade into one another set to Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow.’ And here is the true irony: Enya sings ‘sail away, sail away, sail away’ as if indicating a sense of escape however Kayla is not escaping at all. She is trapped on the other side of a computer screen as she spies on the lives of her classmates. She hands out likes in a vain attempt at being noticed. As Kayla makes her videos that no one watches, she presents an aspirational version of herself and when she speaks honestly about herself she often creates a made-up friend and speaks of her shortcomings. None of us know how the internet will affect us in the long term and ‘Eighth Grade’ does not seek to answer that question, but it’s one of the first films to start asking questions.

‘Eighth Grade’ is a terrifically confident film and this is embodied so clearly in the score by electronic artist Anna Meredith. You might expect this film to be scored by twee folk singers or breathless women and acoustic guitars. Instead we get a hard-hitting synth score which plays out like Phillip Glass took LSD at Burning Man and wrote an opus while sleepwalking. This soundscape provides an emotional nitro-boost to the senses as we see the world through Kayla’s eyes. This does not communicate the feeling of a filmmaker who is viewing their past through the lens of nostalgia. This has the immediacy of now. You are not safe from the torture of Kayla’s anxiety. You are right there with her.

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Thankfully we are granted occasional and appreciated reprieves from Kayla’s carousel of discomfort albeit never in a too-saccharine way. Much of this comes from Kayla’s father. Mark Day is a single dad and deserves every doing-his-best award possible. He loves and accepts Kayla. But he is also fully-aware that he does not understand her world. He attempts to give her advice which is woefully useless to her. He feels her pain. He worries that she is broken because of the lack of a mother in her life. This struggle is difficult to watch and Josh Hamilton plays him with the just right amount of goofy cluelessness mixed with good-natured effort.

Of course, things get a little better for Kayla. She goes to high school to shadow an older student and is paired with the effervescent Olivia (Emily Robinson.) She becomes an immediate and desperately needed older-sister figure in her life. Olivia introduces her to a taste of coolness and also to a potential danger: teenage boys. Through these experiences, Kayla finds a bit of self-confidence and her YouTube videos delivered often as voice-over narration start to take on a different meaning.

In a well-worn genre, ‘Eighth Grade’ is a truly special film and I hope it can find an audience. Unfortunately it earned an R rating which feels like an injustice. Sure, this is not a movie which files down its edges. There is an f-bomb. The terms ‘how to give a blowjob’ ‘how to give a good blowjob’ are Googled by a 8th grade girl. I can see how this might be scandalous, but it’s silly to think that the mild spiciness here is anything compared to what pre-teens are exposed to on the Internet on a daily basis. And especially with the violence accepted in PG-13… Oh well. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. This is a film which should be able to be viewed by teenagers today without having to bring their parents. This is not a movie which uses youth as exploitation. This is not ‘Kids’ or ‘Thirteen.’ This is not screaming in your face look how messed up the children are!

‘Eighth Grade’ feels like a primer for understanding a secret language. Bo Burnham has crafted a hyper-empathetic experience that breaks down the impassable wall of a teenage girl’s mind. In doing so, he has illuminated something universally elemental in all of us.

‘EIGHTH GRADE’ IS IN SELECT CITIES ON JULY 20, 2018

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