Eighth Grade (2018)

Directed by Bo Burnham

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I walked out of Eighth Grade feeling a buzz only coming of age stories can offer.  In Kayla’s (Elsie Fisher) journey we see something of ourselves.  The film is a blend of universal truths and the hyper-specific world of today’s teenagers.

It seems that older movies used to capture a generation by focusing on an ensemble, whether that’s American Graffiti, Breaking Away or Dazed and Confused.  More recent coming of age movies focus on single characters over time, like BoyhoodLady Bird and even something like American Honey.

Bo Burnham’s movie might initially seem off-putting in its specificity, but then again it’s that attention to detail that connects to our own life experiences.  We may not have grown up with smartphones or had to watch our teachers ‘dab,’ but we recognize that strained desire to connect with those around us and with which the teachers attempted to reach their students.

The story depicts Kayla’s last week of eighth grade.  She has an unrequited, unfortunate crush on a boy with electric eyes, she has no real best friend and she struggles to communicate with her eager, goofy father (Josh Hamilton).  She also has a youtube channel in which she attempts to present herself as an authority on all the things she is herself working through, such as confidence and being yourself.

Things play out mostly as you expect, at least in terms of emotional beats.  There are highs and lows leading to an unsettling darkness before the cathartic resolution.  The film is funny, poignant and thought-provoking even in its simplicity.  It captures the awkward years of young teenage life and says something broader about fitting in within this digital age.

This is Burnham’s first movie, and it’s hard not to talk about him when discussing the story.  He reached internet fame at a young age, something Kayla may aspire to, and at the time of the movie’s release he is only 27 years old.  He’s too old to know everything about what it’s like being 13 today, and he’s seemingly too young to understand the single father’s experience of raising a child.

In an interview on Sean Fennessey’s Channel 33 podcast, Burnham explained how he wanted to make a movie about life today, and it only felt natural to make a story about a teenager because young kids feel society more than other people.  They are in tune with everything that’s going on, as of yet unable to filter out what they don’t like or can’t understand.  Kids have to reach out and touch the things around them, and occasionally they will get burned as a result.

So Kayla feels the pressure to take part in what looks like a pretty unhealthy, competitive online landscape.  It’s an environment she might grow to loathe as she gets older and outright abandon once she no longer needs the validation.  But, as a thirteen year-old, it’s hard not to do what everyone else is doing, to follow before you know how to lead.

It’s likely because of Burnham’s own relative distance from Kayla’s experience that he is able to so sincerely capture her plight.  Setting the story today, through the eyes of a young girl, surely forced him to listen more than to speak.  His story has the self-confidence and wit of his own comedy specials, but there is an honesty to the struggle that you can only really understand from a distance.  He knows enough to comment on teenage-hood but also to empathize with the pain of growing up.

Eighth Grade is also just a fun movie.  It’s stylized in a way you’d expect from a director of Burnham’s demographic.  The electric-infused music from Anna Meredith is often at the forefront of the movie, cueing us into Kayla’s frame of mind and making it feel like we’re watching a polished vine video.

Burnham understands not just the universal nature of growing up but also the pace at which kids today (and for the last twenty-ish years) take in stories and new media.  He’s made a film about 2017/18 with the same energy of the time.  This isn’t a nostalgic look back on childhood as much as a ‘deep in the trenches’ realtime look at the experience.  It’s like watching a History channel special on World War II versus watching Saving Private Ryan.

Up Next: Sorry to Bother You (2018), The Elephant Man (1980), Rich Hill (2014)

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