There are few segments in movies of recent memory that so starkly delineate the gulf between the director’s sensibility and that of their protagonist as the one that opens Eighth Grade. I don’t know how old Bo Burnham is, but it’s obvious that the technology ruling the life of his adolescent hero, Kayla (Elsie Fisher), is something he’s not comfortable with. Kayla, an awkward, shy, but also distressingly aware girl who is now in the eighth grade at a public middle school in a well-to-do California suburb, makes YouTube videos in her spare time that attempt to give advice to others her age on how to “put yourself out there” and “be yourself.” Her media skills will be impressive to anyone who came of age before the iPhone was a fixture of teen culture, though they come across as second nature for Kayla. In other aspects of social interaction, however, she’s seriously lacking, which is the point of Burnham’s movie.
Though the subtext of “not fitting in” is a cliche of teen dramas, Burnham intensifies the attendant pain and confusion by juxtaposing Kayla’s feigned confidence in front of the camera with her total lack of presence in social situations. It’s not just that she can’t keep up with the cool kids (it’s implied that as recently as sixth grade she herself was destined to become one), but that there’s something in her emotional makeup that prevents her from even connecting on a basic level with her peers. In scenes like the one at a cruelly duded up pool party, Burnham comes dangerously close to depicting Kayla as almost mentally unbalanced in her fear of being exposed as mediocre. Encased in the language and culture of social media, she struggles to make herself noticeable, thus making her even more of a figure of ridicule for all the positivity effusions she puts forth on her videos, which nobody seems to watch anyway.
This discomfort is especially acute during those times when Kayla really does try to put herself “out there.” A boy she’s stuck on barely acknoweldges her existence, and when he does he couches his side of the conversation in pseudo-macho platitudes, as if this would be enough to get her to stay away from him. Whether or not she picks up on these slights is open to interpretation. At the same time, Burnham is careful, once again, to highlight the difference in academic environment between that depicted and the one the viewer may have experienced at Kayla’s age. An important scene takes place during an active shooter drill at school, and the whole idea of scholastic betterment is reduced to what’s in it for teachers and students irrespective of actual accomplishment. Burnham isn’t being cynical. If anything, the tone is resigned. In this regard, Kayla’s relationship with her single father (Josh Hamilton) is particularly touching. Unlike the usual crestfallen teen hero, Kayla truly feels her awkwardness is an affront to her father, as if she has failed him as an only child. His feeling of helplessness and self-reproach when he realizes she thinks this way is the most devastating instance in a movie full of squirm-inducing realities. Burnham’s film is a welcome corrective to the Hollywood habit of presenting secondary school life as being the last chance for American youths to make their mark on the world, but some people won’t be able to handle its honesty.
Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).
Eighth Grade home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 A24 Distribution LLC