Eighth Grade, 2018.
Directed by Bo Burnham.
Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson and Jake Ryan.
With one week of eighth grade left, an introverted 13-year-old girl tries to make it to the end.
1986’s Stand By Me sees four young boys on a cross-country hike to find a dead body. The story is quite grim, but its heart is pure, and that’s down to one thing; the portrayal of the kids. Unlike some movies about children, Stand By Me presented them unfiltered in their profane, silly but natural glory. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is similarly real, painting a vivid landscape of today’s flossing, snapchatting, and crucially, struggling teens.
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is a normal 13-year-old girl. At school she’s written off as the shy one (especially when she wins the class superlative award for Most Quiet), at home her only desire is to be sucked into the black hole of twitter and instagram until she eventually succumbs to sleep, and she also vlogs. For someone who appears to be so timid, as one character notes, she “knows a lot about stuff”. The opening scene is a recorded monologue about being yourself, punctuated with a healthy dose of but’s, uhm’s and like’s, but always ending on a ebullient “gucci”. While the act of vlogging may not be reminiscent to everyone, the idea is eerily resonant – that constant battle to break out of the mental straightjacket and put yourself out there.
The movie may be named after the American system of school years, but it’s accessible worldwide (for me, as a Scot, this film would be called Second Year). Burnham recognises that the way people grow up has changed radically from his early years, and so he hasn’t made a film that’s nostalgic (unlike Jonah Hill’s also great Mid90s) – rather, he’s tried to take a snapshot of now. The result is unsettlingly and hilariously lurid, feeding off vine culture – listen out for a boy shouting “LeBron James” and a headteacher dabbing – and the exhausting pressure of technology on schoolchildren.
There are several scenes in the movie of Kayla simply enjoying Snapchat, playing with various filters. Her obsession, like so many, with social media has a knock-on effect with her dad (Josh Hamilton), who constantly reaches out to her to chat about life and tell her how cool he thinks she is, but is met with aloof tidbits. Burnham has said in Q&As that he wanted to show the internet to be warm and human (probably because that’s where he found his initial success as a comedian). He succeeds in doing so, particularly following an enchanting montage with the new theme of the worldwide web; Enya’s Orinoco Flow. Try scrolling afterwards without “sail away” echoing in your head.
Kayla’s efforts to survive her last week and make it to high school may seem from the outset like any other adolescent comedy; girl goes up against the popular kids while trying to get the virile boy. But through an increasingly cringe-worthy (so much it’s nearly painful) set of vignettes, you begin to realise how ground-breaking the film actually is. You have kids masturbating in class, discussing school shootings and sniffing glue. Burnham’s cinematographer, Andrew Wehde, pulls off the feat of creating a indie movie feel through distinctively impressive moments – an anxiety-inducing pool sequence is anchored on an extraordinary shot – and fly-on-the-wall, almost non-fiction camerawork.
The whole realism of the thing is mostly down to Fisher’s extraordinary performance, though. The accomplishment of her work is in its apparent simplicity; she’s playing an everyday teen. But in channeling the nauseous nuance that requires, the temper and internal klaxons that provide some laugh-out loud moments (the banana, anyone?), she shows herself to be a brave new force in film. It’s not all giggles and embarrassment though; there’s some pretty tough material here that establishes both Burnham and Fisher’s talents, scenes you’ll desperately want to rescue Kayla from, but pull you in deeper to the realism of it all.
The verisimilitude of the coming-of-age side in school is brilliant, but the emotional punch comes from Kayla’s relationship with her dad. Hamilton is irresistible in the role, embodying the haplessly optimistic parental attitude that drives teens crazy. Many laughs owe themselves to the pair’s effortless chemistry, summarised in a tear-jerking denouement that hits you harder than you might expect. All of the triumphant highs and crushing lows are stunningly interpreted by composer Anna Meredith too, creating a tight, sense-stirringly up-tempo score that’s simultaneously orchestral and electronic.
A really, really amazing film. In fact, it’s one of the best of the decade.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★