Review: Eighth Grade (2018)
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is an insightful look at the experience of a painfully shy 13-year-old, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), trying to survive her final week of middle school. Structured around a series of videos she makes for her little-seen YouTube channel (most videos have between 0 and 2 views), the film depicts the excruciating awkwardness of adolescence in the modern day, when bodily changes, burgeoning self-awareness, and the unrelenting cruelness of social pressure mounts a non-stop assault on children’s psyches.
For anyone who suffered from anxiety problems as a child and, in particular, women who were wallflowers during grade school, Eighth Grade may play as a horror film. A sequence late in the film amplifies the horror considerably, as a faux-sympathetic high schooler pressures Kayla during a game of truth or dare, with the game teetering on the brink of coercion (or worse). However, for those viewers who had less-extreme grade school experiences than Kayla’s, Eighth Grade still plays as an honest depiction of the awkwardness of early adolescence and the painful process of emotional maturation.
That said, Eighth Grade is not seamless. It’s Burnham’s directorial debut and you can recognize his inexperience making certain authorial decisions. For instance, Kayla’s YouTube videos are too nakedly a structural device for Burnham to hang his themes on; it shows how conventional his narrative structure is. This isn’t bad in itself, but it undercuts how unconventional and understated much of the drama is. As well, Anna Meredith’s electronic score (while fabulous on its own) sits awkwardly atop the film’s low-key dramatics. That such a musical direction was taken here seems more a result of Burnham wanting to have a cool synth-heavy score like so many popular films and TV shows today, and less to do with any thematic appropriateness (as the film has no interest in 80s nostalgia).
Eighth Grade’s lack of nostalgia is not a shortcoming, however. Most coming-of-age films wallow in nostalgia for the past, speaking to people who were kids 10 or 20 years back, but Eighth Grade is about the experiences of kids today. Its fixation on the present is one of its strengths. Anyone can sympathize with Kayla’s emotions, but the specifics of how she obsesses over YouTube catchphrases, scrolls through Instagram pics of classmates, and ponders the efficacy (and ethics) of nude texts speak directly to the here and now. It’s relevant without stooping to trite topicality.
Overall, Eighth Grade is a solid first effort for the 27-year-old Burnham, who proves adept at capturing some of the specifics of a 13-year-old girl’s experience. That, as a man, Burnham is able to do so shouldn’t be hailed as some unfathomable achievement in modern artistry; he’s simply doing what all good storytellers should be able to do, which is step outside themselves and capture truths about the world. He’s being honest about the experience of grade school and it’s in his universal honesty that his film succeeds.
7 out of 10
Eighth Grade (2018, USA)
Written and directed by Bo Burnham; starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Fred Hechinger.