Runtime: 1 hour 33 minutes
Director: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, and Daniel Zolghadri
Independent film studio A24 continues to prove themselves the most consistent curators of “mainstream” indie films. With the immense critical successes of First Reformed (2018) and Hereditary (2018) already on record for this year, A24 is enjoying a stellar 2018 streak; and so it should come to no surprise that the increasingly prolific art-house studio’s third major theatrical release this year, Eighth Grade is yet another genre-masterpiece that will undoubtedly end being one of the best films of the year when all is said and done.
Eighth Grade is written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, who takes a more serious turn from his usual understated, yet wacky fare to tell the story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she struggles to navigate the socially perilous final days of eighth grade before becoming a high schooler. Like most coming-of-age films, Eighth Grade adopts a more Slice-of-Life narrative, so what the film ends up consisting of is a series of social situations in which Kayla tries her best to overcome the crippling social anxiety that she is so desperately trying to shed before the end of the school year. Kayla dabbles as an aspiring motivational YouTuber and so the film is structured by brief, intercut segments of Kayla’s uploads where she exposits, or affirms the personality traits she wished she had.
A good friend of me introduced me to Bo Burnham in our first year of high school with one of his early stand-ups, and even then I could pick up on the genuine sincerity behind his ironically sardonic on-stage personality. Here in his directorial debut, Burnham abandons the overtly comedic antics in favor of his foundational sense of empathy; so it’s not too surprising that his first feature film would touch on the psychological torment of growing up in a world that is always looking for every possible way to short-cut said empathy. Burnham does an excellent job of capturing the naturalisms of being in eighth grade and recalling what it felt like to be at that age at that time in our lives, which to me is the key dimensional aspect of the film that manifests in its end thesis. Kayla spends the duration effectively torturing herself to fit into the dream socialite mold we’re taught to strive for: confident, charismatic, materialistic, happy. Her motivational YouTube videos, despite her conscious intentions, serve not so much to entertain random viewers, for whom she has garnered virtually none, but to help her strive towards what she believes is the perfect person, despite that ideal being in direct conflict with makes her, her. Elsie Fisher does a fantastic job internalizing that anxious despair many of us experience(d) in middle school/high school, and so when we watch her attend a pool party with no friends and she makes that half-fulfilled attempt to open up against her strongest urges, we can feel that anxiety along with her because we’ve been there before too in our own ways.
There’s a devastating scene in the later half of the film involving Kayla and a male high-schooler that illustrates a reality that too often times goes unrecognized at a critical cost: the reality of our cult of domination and its casualties. Trying to grow into yourself in an increasingly volatile world is hard enough as is, but when in that same world the social hierarchies that innately foster domination and cruelty inform every interpersonal interaction in your life, that burden can become too much to bare, and when you’re least expecting it. Today, people cope with that reality by consuming self-help media in its various forms because it’s easier to change yourself than it is to change the world, which is true. But through that course there arises the new issue of how to change yourself to cope with the realities of an inconsiderate world, of what character models we should strive towards. That question, or more significantly its attempted answer, effectively establishes a new ideological hierarchy that only buttresses that initial domination dynamic for those whom the recommendation does not prove effective. Kayla’s YouTube channel in the film simply echoes a now-commodified-with-the-rise-of-social-media character ideal that, no matter how hard she tries, no matter how much she tortures herself, she never attains it because it is not compatible with what makes her, her, and so she is never satisfied with her existence.
By the end of the film, Burnham doesn’t presume to know the answer to social anxiety, but what he does instead I believe is even more valuable – he insists that you aren’t blamed, that you don’t need to hate yourself to makes changes in your life. Your life experience is unique to you and you alone, and so, only you can find a healthy means of enjoying life. This review is coming a bit after-the fact in terms of the film’s wide theatrical run, but it’s still playing in theaters here and there. So if you happen to live nearby a showing, please make it a priority to see it.