Despite having been directed by a comedian, Eighth Grade may stand as one of the starkest movies you’ll see about entering your teenage years. Although there is certainly plenty of humor in his debut feature, writer-director Bo Burnham, who made it in the business as a comedian with a YouTube channel, uses it as quirky decor to top of a drama mired in lonely desperation. In a breakout role, Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, a pimply faced 13-year-old with a YouTube channel where she plays life coach to a non-existent audience. Burnham and Fisher never hold back on the awkwardness, from tight close-ups on Fisher’s face as she breathlessly tries to talk to popular students to the camera’s focus on her ill-fitting pants and bathing suits.
Burnham pushes at all levels of cinema to capture Kayla’s lonesomeness even while in the company of people. He frames an early dinner scene with her father (Josh Hamilton) with the two at opposite ends of the screen. Even the depth of field puts Dad at a distance, as she tunes out his questions about her feelings about entering high school with her earbuds and images on Instagram. Poor Dad clearly hates to rock her boat, so he puts up with it with uncomfortable laughter at her impatience, as she pops her ear buds in and out with everyone of his questions. Mom for some reason is out of the picture, and Hamilton plays the role with a different kind of desperation, as if he is walking on eggshells not to upset the already nerve-racked Kayla who is trying to go it alone in her attempt for acceptance among the cool kids.
Unlike other films concerned with youthful hierarchy in the halls and classrooms of public school, Kayla’s nemeses don’t make efforts to tear her down. Something worse happens. They ignore her. In a scene where she gathers the courage to talk to popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and her sidekick Steph (Nora Mullins), the girls won’t look up from their phones to listen. Boys are also a clear issue for Kayla. The only way she can get her crush Aiden (Luke Prael) to look into her eyes and engage in conversation is when she makes a passing reference to the possibility of nude photos on her cell phone. These kids spend so much time not looking at each other, that when Kayla and Aiden do lock eyes and engage it becomes an almost visceral shift in human interaction, though no less clumsy than anything else before. This sudden sense of someone recognizing Kayla’s existence is almost like Burnham has turned on a different light to illuminate the scene.
Beyond dynamics with others, including a startling scene where Kayla’s communication skills are tested in what may be a harrowing life-defining moment, Eighth Grade is filled with impressive mundane details that capture her loneliness. Alone in her bedroom, with only the glow of her cell phone illuminating her bumpy round face, you can hear her house’s central A/C whispering, speaking to the spacious emptiness around her. It’s such attention to detail that heightens the film’s textural quality. Burnham also amps extra-diegetic sounds, including Anna Meredith’s brilliantly composed, sometimes abrasive electronic score to highlight the teenager’s nervousness within.
Despite any cinematic embellishment, Burnham never veers from Kayla’s driving concern: will someone among my peer group take an interest in me personally, beyond my looks and sexuality. It’s a concern that speaks to us all, teenager or adult. Burnham keeps this sort of acceptance at bay, dwelling on isolation for so long, that when Kayla makes a genuine connection with a high school student (Emily Robinson), the ground still feels shaky. Recognition, when it appears and no matter how slight it seems, feels like an epic shift. The film’s drama never resorts to tears or high theatrics, just a serendipitous moment of connection that invites everyone’s sympathy because it means we exist.
Eighth Grade runs 94 minutes and is rated R.
SCREENING UPDATE: Catch Eighth Grade at the Miami Beach Cinematheque for its Spirit of the Independents series now running through January 13, check their calendar for details.
SCREENING UPDATE 1: The movie opens at O Cinema Wynwood, Friday, Aug. 31.
It opened earlier in our South Florida area in the following counties and theaters, Friday, July 27:
- MIAMI-DADE: AMC Aventura 24, AMC Sunset Place 24 and South Beach Regal 18 Miami Beach
- PALM BEACH COUNTY: Cinemark Palace 20
In Broward County the film opened Friday, Aug. 18, at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood.
For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. A24 Invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.