Classic films will have enduring elements, but it is inevitable that they will become dated. Social cues, technological trappings, and language will all change, fading elements like a photo left out in the sun. For a generation or more of audiences and filmmakers, the movies of John Hughes have been the touchstone, with the occasional sardonic modern take such as MEAN GIRLS. EIGHTH GRADE, comedian and former YouTuber Bo Burnham‘s narrative debut, is a bracingly modern, extremely funny update of the teen movie and probably the first film to get the modern FOMO-driven, smartphone dominated, internet-flavoured experience of today’s teenagers correct.
Elsie Fisher plays the role of eighth grader Kayla Day, due to graduate and move on to high school in the next week. She lives with her father Mark (Josh Hamilton), where she also records YouTube videos ostensibly offering advice to her fellow teens on various self-help style topics, but in reality a public-facing journal of sorts for Kayla. As the film begins, she is voted “Most Quiet” in her class ‘superlatives’, and the thread running through the film’s events are Kayla attempting to put herself ‘out there’ as her middle school time draws to a close.
The videos Kayla produces form the punctuation marks of the film, and Burnham’s framing of Kayla both visually and aurally is driven by the technology Kayla and her peers are steeped in (“No one uses Facebook any more”). The same peer pressures, trying to appear eager yet detached, and the confusion of immediate post-puberty are present but illuminated with the harsh blue-light glow of a smartphone screen. Kayla’s father struggles to get her attention over the headphone blare of her phone’s music, and Kayla herself struggles to connect with the school’s ‘cool’ crowd glued to their social media apps, in an environment where she must heavily prepare herself for a ‘just up’ Instagram post.
“Burnham’s framing of Kayla both visually and aurally is driven by the technology Kayla [is] steeped in…the harsh blue-light glow of a smartphone screen…the headphone blare of her phone’s music”
Throughout, this approach is executed extremely well by Burnham and his actors. The sound editing and use of music is superb, crashing between diegetic and non-diegetic music – often in one track – in a manner that echoes the rattling adolescent anxiety of Kayla herself. A comically discordant school band rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner is at once extremely funny and oddly symbolic of the warped childhoods experienced by all kids in developed countries, but primarily America. The way the whole experience has been contorted by the internet and technology has been addressed in many films (notable recent examples would include fellow Sundance 2018 debutante SEARCHING) but rarely in a manner that doesn’t needlessly amp up its role. The impact is even highlighted ironically in the film, high-schoolers commenting on the availability of Snapchat to Kayla from a young age making her of ‘a different generation’.
The explicitness of the sexualisation of childhood is also clear in how it decorates so many of the interactions (of course, it has always been there, just not always so explicitly). At one stage, the film has the opportunity to go in a darker direction and wisely eschews it, but not at the cost of spelling out the impact of the incident on Kayla (once again through excellent use of sound, or lack thereof in this case). It is indicative of a script that has a maturity and honesty about adolescent experiences, but remains committed to the comedy-focused approach many take when assessing their childhood in later life.
“…a script that has a maturity and honesty about adolescent experiences, but remains committed to the comedy-focused approach…”
Elsie Fisher’s performance is excellent throughout, and gels well with that of Josh Hamilton as her father. Both actors bounce off each other extremely well, with the same speech patterns and slightly awkward deliveries to each other really convincing that the anxious apple perhaps hasn’t fallen far from the socially awkward tree. The empathy generated by Fisher’s role is hard to understate, and even handles farce comedic scenes with grace and excellent timing.
Like a lot of teenagers, EIGHTH GRADE is funny, awkward, and ambitious – it is a film that represents an accomplished graduation for both Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher.