Coming in the second week of the Glasgow Film Festival, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade forms a neat continuation to Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, which opened the festival. Where Hill made a coming-of-age film about a 13-year-old boy in that name-giving era, this is a coming-of-age film about a 13-year-old girl (Elsie Fisher’s Kayla) in today’s United States, one generation later.
Both films take a similarly detailed approach in bringing their respective time periods to life. Where Mid90s was coated in a nostalgic sheen not unusual to the genre, Eighth Grade looks almost hyper-realistic, a work of fiction that actually feels like dropping in on others in the here and now. The parlance of its mostly teenage cast (Burnham collaborated with Fisher in getting all those “like”s, “totally”s, and “it’s whatever”s just right), the omnipresence of the internet, social media, and smartphones, behavioural patterns like going to shopping malls to hang out, and on a grimmer note, the normalisation of school shooting drills – they demonstrate an admirable attention to authenticity, but they also give you the peculiar impression of watching a period piece about the late 2010s made maybe twenty years in the future. At the very least, Burnham avoided using music appropriate to the age group, so there are no XXXTentacion or Panic! at the Disco songs we have to sit through.
Instead, the film’s score comes courtesy of the Scottish modern classical composer Anna Meredith, and her lively, pulsating intertwinement of synths and strings might just be the highlight of the film. When “Nautilus”, previously released on her excellent 2016 album Varmints, soundtracks Kayla’s arrival to a pool party, it captures with bombastic grandeur just how exciting, vast, and terrifying such an event can be for an insecure teenager struggling to fit in. It’s a misleading scene, however, as the way Burnham captures the faces of Kayla’s bathing, romping, and sun-tanning peers like aliens towering over her with their ease and self-confidence is a smart directorial flourish that goes unequalled for the remainder of Eighth Grade.
In fact, Meredith’s adventurous compositions end up as somewhat of a sore thumb, sticking out as the one and only stylised element in a film dedicated to verisimilitude to a fault. As Burnham, who was met with rapturous applause by the audience when he attended the screening on Wednesday the 27th, said himself in the subsequent Q&A, he mostly feels like being a writer, not a director. And it shows: for all his surprising perceptiveness and empathy in accurately capturing an experience not his own, he is noticeably reserved in the director’s chair, shooting scenes efficiently and to the point, but not allowing his images to attain the same kind of emotional depth as his words.
This type of restraint is hardly an unusual problem for a first-time director coming from a different medium (the 28-year-old Burnham started out as a YouTuber himself, before branching out into stand-up comedy, music, and TV work). In Mid90s, Hill obscures it by going for the easily achievable and thematically fitting style of a skate video, but Burnham opts out of any such gimmicks, which unfortunately leads to Eighth Grade frequently having the look of a YouTube video – economically produced and speedily filmed, it’s the kind of movie that loses none of its value by being watched on a laptop or a tablet instead of in the cinema.
And to be fair, there is still a lot to be valued here. It’s not a terribly original take on the coming-of-age format and the roles of the older and wiser friend to look up to (Emily Robinson) and the compassionate but helpless parent (Josh Hamilton, charming as an impossibly understanding single father who gets an inelegant tear-jerker monologue in the third act) are familiar types, but Burnham’s background as an internet star naturally gives him a better understanding than most of how the world wide web can be not just a cause but also a cure to teenage anxiety. Scenes of teenagers having their eyes glued to their phones or listlessly scrolling through Instagram, Tumblr, and YouTube are realistic to the point of discomfort in how they make you feel as if you are in a room with actual 13- and 14-year-olds and, depending how close you are in age to Kayla, in how they might remind you of your past or even present self. There’s a false sense of safety to be found, especially for adolescents, in the manufactured conversations we lead and the polished presentations of ourselves we present on social media, which Eighth Grade captures very astutely. Kayla would not agree with me on this, but there’s a real joy for the viewer when the film transitions from the artificial language of texting to the bumbling and awkward, but wonderfully natural chats Kayla leads with the similarly self-conscious Gabe (Jake Ryan).
On the other hand, Kayla makes her own YouTube videos, simple and unprofessional vlogs with nary a view, in which she gives life advice on typical teenage issues. At first, there’s an uncomfortable irony in seeing her putting a positive spin on botched social encounters in her own life to give her almost non-existent viewer base tips on “How to Put Yourself Out There” or “How to Be More Confident”. But soon we realise that by projecting a version of herself online that doesn’t conform to the version of herself that her classmates see in school, Kayla isn’t trying to delude either herself or anyone else – she’s in fact learning from her own advice in a way that makes you want to refer to the character as wise beyond her years, if it weren’t for the fact that Burnham takes such care to make her exactly true to her age. Like all 13-year-olds, Kayla makes mistakes, but she learns from them.
Admirably and atypically, this learning process is presented as gradual and not in the way of too many other stories about growing up, where there’s just one important hurdle to be crossed until things are finally looking up. Eighth Grade knows that life doesn’t work that way, and so does Kayla. At the end of the film, she records one last vlog. It’s a private one, to be watched by herself in four years’ time, when she graduates high school. She wishes her future self all the best and hopes that her high school years will have been amazing. But if not, then that’s okay as well. That, in the end, is the most important lesson Kayla has learnt and a lovely final note to Eighth Grade.
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