Bo Burnham cemented his place as one of my favorite comedians quite a while ago. That being said, one doesn’t tend to think of a comedian being able to pull off a potentially award-winning movie. I’ll admit, even I was surprised to learn that Burnham wrote and directed Eighth Grade. However, one thing I’ve always admired about the artist’s work was his hilarious way of hammering home honest truths. Every bit has a point, every gag somehow relatable to today’s societal issues. So going in, while wary, I had enough faith in Bo that I was confident I’d enjoy the film.
And Bo(y)! Was that an understatement!
Thirteen-year-old Kayla (played by Elsie Fisher) is only trying to find her place in the world, engulfed in the world of social media that is more prevalent in her generation than any before. With a constant pressure to perform, she seeks beauty advice from YouTube tutorials and Instagrams herself in bed first thing in the morning with full make-up. The excellence of these every-day occurrences is that she is not portrayed as vapid or even necessarily attention-seeking, but rather just a regular human being trying to fit in.
Filming her own YouTube videos, Kayla slowly learns to be okay with who she is as she gives advice to her few fans to do the same. Often, though she is giving said advice before she has fully grasped the concept herself. This came off as very poignant to me; personally, I tend to find myself leaving sticky notes around my house or repeating mantras to remind myself to be positive, even though I don’t feel that way yet. So many times we have to talk through our problems before we can really find peace or clarity. To others the dynamic might come off as hypocritical, but I found it to feel very true to life.
The beauty of this film, however, is Burnham’s near-flawless direction of a story of a middle school girl told by a grown man. In an interview with The View, Burnham explains how much he really committed to getting the experience right. First telling the tale of how his panic attacks onstage seemed to resonate with young girls that age, his interest was piqued in anxiety issues across the board. He found it surprising that preteens were struggling with the same thing, and so he began to do his research. “The good thing about this generation, if you want to know anything about them, is that they’re posting everything about themselves online,” he quips. He goes on to say how that gave him the opportunity to watch hundreds of videos on the subject by middle school kids themselves. Wanting to capture the feeling of going to school today in 2018, with all the access to social media and technology in general, he states that he “wanted it not to feel like a memory...a projection of my own experience.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mP9BQgEF9jQ)
Burnham achieves this and more, with a score that feels goofy and awkward at times and tense and almost horror-like at others. The cinematography lends itself to the same atmosphere, panning over Fisher’s shoulder to put the viewer in Kayla’s shoes. Per his sit-down with Rotten Tomatoes, he also divulges that he uses real Instagram accounts in scenes where Kayla is on her phone, treating the internet as its own character in a way, wanting it to feel as real as the people in the movie. Kayla isn’t dressed up unrealistically, either, her acne clearly noticeable even with make-up on. Fisher’s portrayal of a panic attack while at a pool party is so well-produced, I was nearly triggered myself in the theater. And there is a scene where Kayla and a high school boy are playing a game of Truth or Dare in the backseat of his car that will have you on the edge of your seat, furious and terrified for the lead who finds herself in a situation that is sadly all to common. The scene is played and directed with the utmost severity and honesty, exhibiting a respect for victims of similar encounters. Thankfully, the incident passes with our protagonist relatively unscathed - that is to say, you shouldn’t be tempted to storm out of the theater once its over. Overall, the attention to detail and setting the exact right tone is something comedian-turned-writer/director Bo Burnham accomplishes with flying colors. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrHxbYeE1ws)
Eighth Grade was not at all the side-splitting barrel of laughs I half-expected. While certainly humorous, the jokes were subtle and acted as scene enhancers as opposed to dominating the show. Helping to move the story along, every one-liner was believable and realistic, like something you would actually hear your father or daughter or teacher say.
Where Burnham successfully downplayed his affinity for humor, he was equally proficient at delivering drama and realism. I attended the film with a group of friends of various ages, genders, and backgrounds, and yet not one of us walked away untouched by the emotional tone of the movie. Every one of my peers - and myself - could not cease discussing the nuances and relatable nature Burnham and Fisher managed to portray. We could all see ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes, all of us saying how much we felt the same way at that age. The awkwardness Fisher’s character exudes is honest and something we’ve all experienced, never knowing quite what to say or how to say it. It not only paints the hero as realistic and relatable, but the father as well, refrain from the toxic trope of pitting child against parent. While they certainly butt heads, Kayla’s dad is warm, caring, and involved in her life, even though he too doesn’t always know what he’s doing.
Regardless of its R rating, in my opinion it’s something parents should definitely take their preteens to see. It easily provides a take-away for everyone, and is a great opportunity to bond as well as open up an avenue of discussion about the film’s finer points. Really, everyone (excluding small children) could benefit and enjoy Eighth Grade. With a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, I could hardly disagree. I highly recommend this movie.
Learn More at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/eighth_grade