Elsie Fisher and Bo Burnham break your heart and piece it back together in A24’S Eighth Grade
There is a verse in comedian Bo Burnham’s satirical takedown of pop radio, “Repeat Stuff,” where the instrumental stops and we hear him play a tender piano ballad. He softly croons, “I’m in magazines / full of model teens / so far above you / so read them and hate yourself / and pay me to tell you I love you.” In the song he pokes fun at the methodical, Taylor Swifting survey-heavy, often soulless machine of producing pop music for the largest common denominator. But in this particular verse, he narrows the scope to how this manipulation seeps into the psyche of vulnerable teenage girls. In the intentionally on-the-nose music video, Burnham sneaks into the room of a female fan of his, smothers her with a pillow, rips her heart out and eats it. Hardcore fandom can hurt if you give yourself up to it. If you’ve ever seen Bo Burnham’s specials (what and Make Happy – both on Netflix) you know he is a virtuoso performer, bursting at the seams with one-man bits and musical numbers, but he ties a very human bow on everything. At the end of each special, he shows you brief glimpses of heart – the heart of a lifelong performer who sometimes feels trapped by performing. With his directorial debut Eighth Grade, Burnham takes the coming-of-age film genre, and just as he did with “Repeat Stuff,” narrows the scope to the vulnerable, beating heart of a generation.
Eighth Grade zeroes in on Kayla Day (played to humble perfection by Elsie Fisher) and her last week of eighth grade, a strange yet familiar world. Kids shout soundbites from whatever’s viral at the moment during assemblies; sniff markers during class; and try to hide their urge to masturbate in front of others (sadly that last one seems to endure well into middle age for disconnected men.) Kayla wins “Most Quiet” at the end-of-the-year assembly much to her embarrassment, but when we first meet her she’s filming one of her many instructional how-to videos for YouTube, which she always closes with a parting “Gucci!” “I don’t talk a lot at school but it’s not that I’m scared to talk: I just don’t want to.” She derives her self-worth more from her YouTube videos than from her fellow classmates – a dilemma unique to today’s generation of kids who were born into the Internet in full swing. She finds solace in her Internet persona. Her videos’ voiceover plays during moments of Kayla interacting with others, showing us her earnest attempts to practice what she preaches: “Confidence is a choice. The really awesome part about confidence is that you can just start acting like it – you can’t be brave unless you’re scared.” You identify immediately with the bravery of Kayla’s journey because you feel just how scared she is. You find bits of pieces of yourself, awkward and yearning, in her attempts to make genuine connections. We all know the scary path that’s treaded in eighth grade. You feel Kayla’s every wound and celebrate her every triumph.
What sets Eighth Grade apart from other teen movies is the simplicity of how brutal your peers can be without knowing. In your garden-variety teen movies, you have bullies who are, often to the point of caricature, proactively mean. But in Eighth Grade, there are no obvious lines drawn in the sand. Kayla’s father, played with spot-on eager sweetness by Josh Hamilton, tells Kayla, “Sometimes kids act like they don’t like you but it’s really because they got their own stuff going on.” No one is outwardly cruel to Kayla, but rather totally indifferent toward her – a sort of dispassionate cruelness in itself. The children in Eighth Grade are human, flawed and unaware of the impact they have on each other. Burnham’s cringeworthy scenes emphasize how total indifference can be a harder blow struck than direct meanness. At a pool party she was reluctantly invited to, her gift for her classmate, one that Kayla was excited to give, is opened in front of everyone; it is neither cheered nor jeered, but merely overlooked and eventually forgotten.
Burnham, true to his comedic emphasizing of key moments, cleverly uses music, abruptly cutting in and out, to show us how Kayla views her world. She looks at her crush, “Best Eyes” winner for boys Aiden, and hears bass-thumping techno as he walks past her like an Adonis in slow motion. Kayla’s terrifying walk from the house to the pool in her one-piece bathing suit in front of her classmates is prefaced with a horror-like score from Anna Meredith. The mall, to Kayla, is a bright, shimmering oasis. Her Instagram feed is an endless ascent into world of glowing friendships, immaculately cropped and filtered. We amplified our own longings and fearing in middle school, so it only makes sense the film’s score reflects that.
Chief among Burnham’s cringeworthy scenes is also the most heartbreaking: Kayla nervously playing Truth or Dare in the backseat of a high school boy’s car. Burnham shoots the scene with impressive restraint, allowing the lighting and dreaded silence to illustrate Kayla’s discomfort. Your heart breaks for her and how pervertedly her eagerness to make friends can be interpreted. A situation suffered mostly by women, especially teenage girls, who are hurt, fearful, and confused how best to carry forward can be felt all at once just by watching Kayla. She later shares a tender moment with her dad, burning her “hopes and dreams” in a backyard fire. He wants nothing more than to convince her she is coolest girl in the world, that he’s amazed with how brave she is putting herself out there, that she is all she truly needs to gain confidence. We are all Josh Hamilton in this beautiful scene.
Why you should see this movie: You won’t find a more accurate portrayal of modern day middle schoolers/high schoolers than Eighth Grade. Burnham takes his characters and their setting seriously, shining a light on an era most choose to forget, but is embedded deeply in our development as people. Elsie Fisher gives a performance, achingly real and without makeup to cover her natural acne, that is without a doubt Oscar-worthy; a more honest performance this year you will not see. Sit her right next to Molly Ringwald as a teen movie icon worth every young girl’s emulation. Burnham, who was discovered through YouTube, understands Kayla’s preference for the Internet and its give-and-take nature. He shares with Kayla the plight of the performer: eager to please the audience, but still searching for ways to feel right just with yourself. As Kayla tells those who struggle with this: “What’s the point if you’re not being yourself?” Werd.