A wonderfully bitter-sweet coming-of-age film about modern teen anxiety in the post-millennial age of self-obsessed culture.
‘Growing up can be a little scary sometimes’. This phrase might sound like it comes from another monologue from yet another typical coming-of-age film that everyone has seen for the billionth time over, but this time its slightly different. Instead, these words are spoken by Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) in one of her many motivational videos she posts on YouTube that has barely any views, and given that she is entering her final week of Eighth Grade (Year 9 as we call it in the UK) and moving into High School shortly, its easy to understand why she is feeling these surrounding levels of anxiety. This is what Bo Burnham tends to focus on in his directorial debut Eighth Grade, a wonderfully fresh and very honest depiction of growing up in the post-millenial era based on his own personal difficulties. This film has been a long time coming since debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 and releasing in US last August, and now it has finally made it over to our shores, it’s not hard to see why its been receiving the astounding critical acclaim it rightfully deserves.
What sets this film apart from the recent trend of coming-of-age dramas like The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Sex Education is the uncannily truthful portrayal that Burnham lends to Kayla’s life. Burnham said this film was ‘an attempt to represent the kids who live their lives online’, and there are certain moments where this is noticeable. Early on, we see Kayla scrolling through Instagram in a bored-like fashion but with upbeat background pop music, only for this isolation to vanish as she takes off her earphones to hear what her Dad (Josh Hamilton from Manchester by the Sea) is asking. ‘One more week in Eighth Grade right?’, to which Kayla replies sarcastically ‘Yeah…Eighth Grade’ while absorbing her energy back towards the mirror in front of her. From this brief conversation I started to question whether I treated my parents in the same ignorance as Kayla does when I was younger, and this same reaction kept happening on a consistent basis throughout the film’s nimble running time. At times, the experience was unsettling and cringe-worthy as brief forgotten memories suddenly resurfaced to haunt me, but it also seemed like a subtle wake-up call to the impact that smart phones are having on our daily lives without being explicitly patronising.
In addition, Burnham perfectly captures the contrast in how Kayla perceives herself online to the real world and vice versa. There is a blackly comic sequence where one of her videos about self-confidence voiceovers herself pushing out of her shy comfort zone to sing karaoke at a party where she’s unwelcomed and it’s clear that she doesn’t fit in. With this juxtaposition, it places a dark but welcome spin on the coming-of-age film as the harsh reality is, no matter how much you try to change, it simply doesn’t happen overnight. This is where most of the film’s emotional resonance truly lies as Kayla desperately tries to adapt to the social situation around her but with little success, something that anyone who has trouble with anxiety can relate to.
It’s with this emotional honesty that Elsie Fisher’s lead performance is exceptional. As much as the vocal with constant stutters and the repetitively painful usage of the word ‘like’ are extremely effective, it’s her physical side in conveying a 14 year old teenage girl that was striking. The slouching of her shoulders when walking downstairs in a bikini, the fidgeting of her hands when talking, and the fact that make-up didn’t try to airbrush away the acne on her face made for a very believable performance because she looked exactly like an Eighth Grade student, which is very rare in this genre. Along with Fisher, Josh Hamilton is great as Kayla’s Dad and the scenes between them two are some of the film’s major highlights including a scene involving a campfire that forced a tear to shed in my eye, as well as Daniel Zolghadri who features in probably the film’s only dark moment, which is sinisterly understated but speaks incredible volumes.
On the other hand, that’s not to say this movie isn’t funny because there is plenty to laugh at, such as the cheesy class assemblies, Kayla eating fruit (you do the math), and a dinner table scene which is innocently charming and awkward. But Burnham isn’t attempting to make rapturous laughs with this film because although these moments are very amusing, there is a profound context about the world that the post-millennial generation have to now navigate at a young age that reverberates within the confines of this bittersweet story. It might not have unique cinematography or an eye-catching mise-en-scene, but what Eighth Grade lacks visually it makes up for in script and performances bristling with originality, and that is a noteworthy achievement.
Eighth Grade (2018), directed by Bo Burnham, is distributed in the UK by Sony Pictures Releasing, certificate 15.