Teenage kicks of a very different kind in Bo Burnham’s excellent comedy-drama
From Instagram, to Twitter, to an endless array of Snapchat filters, Kayla’s (Elsie Fisher) life is one very much lived out online, her world completely revolving around the endless scroll of social media. Indeed, the first time we meet Kayla in Eighth Grade (2018) is via her own video blog, the happy teen dishing out advice to others about putting yourself out there, or how to be more confident, or simply how important it is to be yourself around others. But as time goes by, it quickly becomes clear that her own life is actually lacking in all of these areas, her days in school spent mostly alone, while the inevitable awkward social interactions she faces make her feel even more isolated. And now that high school is just around the corner, Kayla worries that things might be about to get a whole lot worse.
As much as that sounds like the typical start to your average teen coming-of-age film, it’s not. And that is one of the reasons Eighth Grade works so well. Steering away from those usual plot points and tropes, writer-director Bo Burnham instead choses to focus on the story of a girl who doesn’t quite know how she fits into everything yet. A girl whose mirror is surrounded by clichéd motivational post-it notes, who has no noticeable friends at school, and who wins an award for ‘Most Quiet’ student in her year (her reaction to which is excruciating to watch and all too real). While other films might go down the route of showing her overcoming all of this, Burnham embraces Kayla for who she is: a bright but shy girl simply trying to make it through each day without making an already cringey situation even worse for herself. And it’s so refreshing to see. It’s also incredibly relatable. Although you might never have been the awkward teen at school, almost everyone can understand the feeling of being out of place at some point in time. Of not being able to quite fit in as everyone around you laughs away about something you’re not involved in. As such, we are able to see a lot of ourselves in Kayla – something that makes Burnham’s film stick with you for a long time after seeing it.
Burnham’s excellent direction is able to further immerse us in Kayla’s world, keeping us alongside her at all times so we can better understand exactly what she is going through. This often makes for very uncomfortable viewing, particularly when Kayla does attempt to dive headfirst into new situations, her anxiety palpable onscreen as we watch her trying to keep a terrified look off her face. A chance to talk to one of the most popular girls (Catherine Oliviere) in her class is painfully one-sided, while a pool party becomes an almost horrifying experience, our ears filling with the sound of Kayla’s frantic breaths as she tries to stave off a panic attack. But amongst all of this, there is real humour to Burnham’s story, the writer-director able to create comedy even in amongst the discomfort of Kayla’s everyday life. In fact, Eighth Grade is sometimes at its best when its making you laugh, from something as silly as watching a teacher attempting to dab, or from a lie Kayla instantly regrets telling one of the boys (Luke Prael) in her class. However a lot of the humour comes from her interactions with her father (Josh Hamilton), a man simply trying to get his daughter to open up to him when she wants nothing more than to be left alone looking at her phone. Their relationship plays out beautifully onscreen, Burnham’s writing creating something deeply poignant between the two, the realism Fisher and Hamilton bring to these moments making them even more effective, with one later scene so perfect that it will have you fighting back tears.
Fisher is actually one of the main reasons Eighth Grade is such a spectacular triumph, her excellent performance drawing us in at every moment, while her ability to handle both the humour and the sadness in the story truly brings Kayla to life. Yet, most importantly, she also makes Kayla incredibly likeable throughout, her portrayal, along with Burnham’s writing, ensuring we are never looking down at Kayla, her continued attempts to improve herself or to find more viewers for her video blog admirable, rather than something to laugh at. Indeed, it is her blog that is one of the few things that allows Kayla to feel a part of something, every new upload a tool for her to show a side of herself many others don’t see. For this reason, Burnham takes great care to never chastise Kayla (or indeed the other characters in the film) for her constant use of the internet and social media, showing instead how it is a way for her to interact when she so often feels invisible during the day. One sequence in particular captures this brilliantly, Kayla sitting in her room in the dark, Enya’s heavenly ‘Orinoco Flow’ playing as she is lost in the screen in front of her, scrolling, searching and viewing everything and anything throughout the night. Yet it is a moment that also shows the almost terrifyingly hypnotic qualities of everyday technology – of how easy it is to lose yourself to hours of staring at a screen (which I’m sure is a feeling most of us can relate to these days).
It is this modern take on teenage life that makes this so unlike any film we’ve seen before, Burnham expertly reflecting what it’s like to grow up with technology continually at your fingertips. But where Eighth Grade really excels is in Burnham’s ability to continually defy our expectations throughout, his carefully crafted story taking us on a wonderful, yet often uncomfortable, journey alongside Kayla as she makes it ever closer to walking through those high school doors. With a stunning central performance from Fisher, scenes of incredible realism, and a beautifully moving ending, Burnham’s film is one that is also surprisingly relatable, its moments of awkwardness, anxiety and isolation resonating no matter what your age.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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