Eighth Grade, 2018.
Directed by Bo Burnham.
Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Catherine Oliviere, Jake Ryan and Daniel Zolghadri.
On the verge of high school, an internet-obsessed young girl grapples with her place in the social hierarchy while vlogging about confidence and self-belief.
In the vast canon of American high school movies, the order of the day is always to reflect the politics of the period and the insecurities and issues of that generation’s young people. High school serves, in many ways, as a microcosm for the world as a whole, with society’s implicit strata and cliques made explicit by the cruelty and tribalism of teenagers desperate to portray themselves as cool. It’s interesting, in that respect, to see musical comedian Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade alter the script by shifting focus slightly to middle school – an inherently awkward transitional period of education.
Burnham’s thesis, crystallised around the central character of Kayla – played with exquisite, jittery control by teen actor Elsie Fisher – is that this age group is uniquely positioned to be vulnerable to the anxiety-inducing power of the modern internet. These are young people determined not to be the kids they were in elementary school and equally determined to reach the quasi-adult status of high school as soon as possible. For today’s teens, known as Gen Z, that feeling is amplified and toxified by the omnipresence of social media, which creates a world in which everyone seems to be having more stuff, more fun and more sex than you are.
Kayla doesn’t fit into this world. She’s a shy, socially awkward teenager – voted ‘Most Quiet’ in her class – who has an adorably cringeworthy vlog in which she doles out trite life lessons in how to “be confident” and “put yourself out there”. She is permanently attached to her phone – earphones in at the dinner table is a common state – much to the chagrin of her clueless, lovable single dad (Josh Hamilton), who has simply no idea how to parent someone who lives half of her life online, in private.
She is at a point of social crossroads, simply waiting for high school to start and for everything to magically get better. Indeed, when she is given a high school buddy for a transition day – Emily Robinson’s sincerely lovely Olivia – it’s one of the few times she seems to genuinely find kinship. The genius of Burnham’s script, though, is that even this doesn’t shake the awkwardness and anxiety that consumes Fisher’s Kayla. We see her fiercely pacing her room while on the phone to Olivia and she frequently rehearses social interactions ahead of time. When she describes anxiety as getting the feeling of butterflies prior to a rollercoaster, without the exhilaration after, it’s a bracingly real depiction of a prevalent modern health concern.
Burnham’s sensitivity and honesty about his young demographic permeates every frame of Eighth Grade. This is at its most potent in his depictions of sexuality and consent, which are shocking without ever being sensational. A classmate Kayla fancies – he’s an aloof, boring-looking kid with intense eyes – thinks nothing about discussing her proficiency at oral sex as a prerequisite for dating, which sends her to YouTube tutorials and a scene with a banana that comes within a whisker of becoming a new take on American Pie‘s titular set piece. Later on, a game of truth or dare is the precursor to an act of chilling gaslighting, allowed to play out in its entirety by Burnham, turning the screw of awkwardness over and over again.
That’s not to say that the move into the director’s chair has stripped Burnham of his comedian roots. Eighth Grade is as funny as it is smart, with Fisher and Hamilton proving to be an excellent comedy double act, while the divide between parents and their kids – “no one uses Facebook now” – provides consistent chuckles. More frequently, though, the movie is a feast of the kind of cringe comedy that was the centrepoint of sitcoms like Peep Show. In Eighth Grade, though, the contort-in-your-seat-like-a-pretzel awkwardness is intensified by just how crushingly relatable it all is.
Burnham has delivered a directorial debut that immediately announces him as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. His storytelling is as sensitive and natural as it is smart and perceptive, crafting a central character that allows leading lady Elsie Fisher to explode into the stardom that will immediately greet her if there’s any justice in the world. Whatever he does next, this elegantly gawky social study is one hell of a calling card for all involved.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.