Where to start with a film as remarkable as Eighth Grade?
Well, the title seems appropriate. Who among us knows off the top of our head what stage eighth grade actually is for North American school-kids? Translated for our side of the pond’s education system, it is about 13 years old – perhaps second or third year of secondary school, while it represents the final hurdle of U.S. middle school. Bo Burnham’s debut feature is most simply summarised as a snapshot of life in the eighth grade for one girl. But, just as the title misleadingly implies stateside specificity, it is so much more than that.
Kayla Day – perfectly played by Elsie Fisher – is that girl. She is quiet – in fact, officially voted “most quiet” in class. She has a YouTube channel full of tips that she herself struggles to follow, such as how to be more confident or “be yourself”, and, significantly, next to no-one appears to watch the videos. She has an overwhelming crush on the class hunk but squirms when he comes within three feet, and nothing petrifies her more than the prospect of a pool party at a popular girl’s house. She lives with her dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) but no mum, a detail initially unexplored. Mark is hopelessly adoring of Kayla – but his attempts at mealtime conversation are drowned out by pink earphones and his knocks on the bedroom door come at all the wrong times. His perspective, on the surface, might seem the reference point for an older audience. It is testament to the film how, in fact, nearly every aspect of it manages to be the entire audience’s reference point.
What plot there is is minimal. And yet, it is a truly authentic journey, emphatically accessible without linear narrative structuring; conventionally redemptive while never needing to be sensational.
Eighth Grade is a wonder.
Released last year in the U.S., Barack Obama listed it among his favourite films of 2018, and it’s easy to see why. Fisher deserves every plaudit that comes her way for a searing, natural and believable turn as Kayla. Within minutes, we are one with the character when all she has done is sit in a classroom chair. It is not easy to portray squirming awkwardness accurately, but here it is depicted with uncanny, aching skill.
Kayla’s vlogging becomes an internal monologue, and something as modern as YouTube might seem the preserve of the youth of Generation Z or Millenials. But Burnham’s film is utterly universal in terms of generational translation. Not once do we believe that Kayla’s channel could not be swapped for a journal; Snapchat for a payphone; a school shooting drill for an air raid practice. It depicts this stage in life in a way that should resonate with every human being who has felt emotion, while unmistakable in its present-day setting. Burnham has said he wanted to show that today’s adolescents are not self-obsessed, but “self-conscious”, merely thrust into the technologically-driven, often superficial world in which they live.
The film has much uproarious humour – Burnham’s background is comedic – but also moments of dark unease that go far beyond any teen angst. These sequences are dealt with appropriately, judged in the manner befitting of the film’s heart. As Kayla encounters older kids, she at once catches a glimpse of everything hopeful and everything terrifying about what awaits in high school and beyond. With apparent ease, Eighth Grade is astonishingly uplifting in how it tackles fear in the unknown without ever sugar-coating reality or swerving into tedious moralising.
Mentions must also go to Jake Ryan’s goofy Gabe in a small but significant role, and also the pulsating, vibrant electronic score courtesy of Anna Meredith that is integral to elevating every detail, no matter how small or mundane, to sweeping levels of beauty.
Eighth Grade is a film with the power to reconcile you with the world.
Eighth Grade is showing at the Macrobert Arts Centre from 3 – 9 May: Tickets