Eighth Grade | Directed by Bo Burnham | Comedy, Drama | 1h 34m
When I was younger, I went through a “YouTube phase”. I discovered, along with the Right Hon. Andrew Trower (another contributor to this very online magazine), that it was both easy and fun to make online videos. The audience was admittedly limited, and they were generally only for the perusal and amusement of people in our immediate circle of friends (all four of them). We started off by “building” a “flying machine”, a strange contraption cobbled together out of old discarded wood we found behind a shed and brown paper we found in a corner shop.
That done, we moved on to “making” a “car”, which was really a pedal go-kart that belonged to my colleague with some silver-sprayed cardboard stuck to it. Rather out of ideas, we then created a “limousine”, which was really a mattress tied to the back of the aforementioned pedal-powered automobile. Each of these da Vinci-esque inventions was the subject of a separate video, complete with stolen music and ludicrous, overbearing narration.
I then tried my hand at vlogging, and I was very not good at it. I made some sketch comedy, featuring myself from different angles and in different outfits. I even filmed myself singing. All of this is to say that I was, in a way, Kayla Day.
Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher (who was, as it happens, robbed of Best Actress awards by every single award show that failed to nominate her), is a vlogger in the eighth grade. She delivers life advice to her audience that’s shot on her camera and is, as far as we know, unedited. Each video is a stream of consciousness offering an uninterrupted cavalcade of teenage wisdom, complete with “ums” and “ers” and “so, likes”.
She is at that problematic age where one is too old for the kid stuff but too young for the adult stuff. She is (or believes she is) under some kind of siege from every angle – from her classmates, from her teachers, even from her father. Her videos are her safe space, her corner that she has carved out for herself. We’re never privy to how large her audience is, nor is that something that ever bothers her. We get the sense that her videos are as much for her as they are for anyone.
Kayla’s story is told over the course of a week or two, charting moments which are both triumphant and excruciating – often simultaneously. Bo Burnham, first time writer-director, doesn’t waste a second of screen time, delivering a perfectly paced account of just what it’s like to be in your early teenage years: full of angst, full of enthusiasm, full of abject terror, and completely out of your depth.
It’s truly impressive just how cinematic EIGHTH GRADE is. Burnham may have begun his career uploading homemade videos on to YouTube, but his debut feature is at home in the cinema. He slides into the medium almost effortlessly. The use of light is particularly impressive: the harsh fluorescent lights overhead in the school corridors, the cold white light of the phone or the laptop illuminating Kayla in the dark of her bedroom, the warm fireside glow that accompanies a heart-to-heart – Kayla’s highs and lows, her isolation, her exhilaration, all of this and more is communicated in the way the world around her is lit.
Composed by Anna Meredith, the score is electronic, strange, and sometimes unsettling, and somewhat reminiscent of Mica Levi’s work on films like Under the Skin and Jackie. Even when it’s accompanying happier scenes, it maintains that slightly off-kilter quality, with electronic glissandos and a disarming theme written in 5/4.
Accepting his Writer’s Guild of America Award for Original Screenplay, Burnham said that “this all belongs to Elsie Fisher who performed the script, no one would care about the script if she hadn’t done it”. Burnham is being more than a little unfair to himself here. He may be a man in his mid-twenties, but he captures the anxieties and frustrations of a teenage girl growing up in the age of Snapchat and Instagram with precision.
The dialogue is naturalistic, and as such it is sometimes painful to listen to, possessed of a gen-Z profundity, laden with observations about the importance of being yourself that could only come from someone living through a time when that’s never been less popular. Humour and heart run deep, but darker subjects are broached with deftness and sensitivity too.
That said, Burnham is right in saying that the performances are pivotal in bringing it together. They imbue the script with some undefinable, remarkable life, some vim, something truly special. A standout moment comes as Kayla delivers a rebuke to a couple of other girls at school (who aren’t exactly bullies, they’re just self-obsessed narcissists). The entire diatribe comes as Kayla stares squarely at her feet, brave enough to finally give them a piece of her mind but not quite brave enough to do it while looking them in the eye. It’s an impeccable scene, one that leaves you cringing slightly while also punching the air in delight.
That balance, between discomfort and elation, is EIGHTH GRADE’s specialty. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me cringe, it made me want to subscribe to Kayla’s channel for some much-needed advice. As a near-perfect entry from a first-time filmmaker, more than anything it made me excited to see what everyone involved will do next.