Last week Lainey mentioned in the intro that Eighth Grade is her best film of 2018 so far, and that I was struggling to get to a showing in Chicago, which is one of the top three markets in the US. It’s frustrating in this day and age when so much is available on demand and I honestly wonder if, for as much as we talk about ticket prices, audience behavior, and the quality of the movies themselves when we talk about the dying theatrical experience, it won’t be convenience, in the end, that kills theaters. However, this past weekend Eighth Grade expanded nationally which included adding more theaters in Chicago which actually made it accessible. (Head’s up, Omaha, you can see it, too!)
And it is worth seeking out, as it is a lovely but cringe-inducing film about one of the most precarious times in a person’s life: the transition between middle and high school. Writer/director Bo Burnham has made a deeply sensitive and unutterably kind portrait of adolescent hell, and it’s one that only he could create. Yes, the protagonist is Kayla (the outstanding Elsie Fisher), a thirteen-year-old girl trying to get through the last week of eighth grade after a particularly hard year. She’s got acne and anxiety and a loving if overbearing father—the details are not made clear but Kayla’s dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), is single-parenting so his helicoptering is somewhat understandable—and also Kayla appears to have no friends. She makes vlogs in which she talks about confidence and being yourself, but barely anyone watches them, and despite an interior belief in herself as an interesting person with Things To Say, her classmates vote her “Most Quiet”.
So why is Bo Burnham so uniquely qualified to tell the story of a young girl struggling through adolescence? Because Burnham got his start making videos in his bedroom and posting them to Youtube.
Burnham was never a thirteen-year-old girl, though he demonstrates the kind of open empathy that makes for truly great storytellers, and he was once a kid posting videos into the void. He performed a self for the digital eye, the trademark of his generation and something he shares with Kayla. Her vlogs are less aspirational for others and more pep talks directed at herself, as she is stuck in a kind of funhouse feedback loop in which she projects a confidence she does not embody offline and chasing what she thinks is confident behavior opens her up to exploitation.
Kayla is growing up in a world irrevocably changed by digital life—one of the biggest faux pas she commits is giving a classmate a board game as a birthday present. This is too real, too tangible, to be borne, and Kayla is scorned for it. (Even though that is a rad present and Kayla is secretly cooler than her “cool” classmates.) Adults will recognize signs that Kayla has the potential to grow into a really cool and interesting adult, even while recoiling at every social miscue and awkward stumble. As I texted Lainey, you will emerge from this film sore from all the cringing.
But this is the world Burnham knows, of performative adolescence and a posturing that extends from the cafeteria to all aspects of life. For previous generations, a kid’s bedroom was a sanctuary, but for Kayla, it’s just another stage. There is so little relief for Kayla that simply announcing she is going to stop vlogging feels like a bigger accomplishment than graduating middle school. The markers have been permanently changed, a generational divide illustrated by Kayla and Mark’s interactions. He wants to support his daughter, to help her, but he has no clue how to relate to her world which might as well be in different galaxy.
Eighth Grade has echoes of films like Thirteen and Edge of Seventeen, and it pairs neatly with British import Pin Cushion (which will be on demand from this Friday). That film is darker and weirder than Eighth Grade, but they sympathize and contrast interestingly, especially how they project their adolescent heroines’ futures. Pin Cushion posits adolescence as the first gyration in a cycle that never ends, while Eighth Grade is distinctly more optimistic that Kayla will, god willing and the creek don’t rise, turn out fine, and that somewhere down the line she’ll realize she was always cooler than her mean classmates.
I remember meeting Bo Burnham when he was around twenty, and I walked away impressed by the size of the chip on his shoulder. At the time, he was eating a lot sh*t from (older) comedians who didn’t respect his digital beginnings or his funny songs, who thought these things made him a hack—they must have totally missed the glaring, detectable-from-space brilliance he emanates. I distinctly remember thinking, that kid is going to prove himself so hard we will FEEL it. And, well, he has now made Eighth Grade at the ripe old age of 27, and goddamn if we don’t feel it.