Synopsis: A week in the life of 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who is about to graduate from middle school.
1. As brutal as it is empathetic, Eighth Grade is one of the best films of the year, and one of the finest portrayals ever of the inferno that is early adolescence. It is hard to believe that this is 28-year-old (!) Bo Burnham’s directorial debut (!) – such is the sureness and expertise exhibited in every decision, from the composition of each shot to the understated deployment of Anna Meredith’s superb score. Eighth Grade, at many points, is harder to watch than the latest jump-scare filled horror movie, as Burnham and lead actress Fisher throw together potent emotional cocktail of being thirteen – a dash of sexual confusion, two parts bone-chilling anxiety, all mixed together in half a cup of constant insecurity. And yet, what truly makes Eighth Grade remarkable is the warmth and understanding it affords to its protagonist. A movie like this could so easily tilt into cruelty, and the fact that it never once does is testament to the skilful way which Burnham and Fisher tell Kayla’s story.
2. A large part of that skill is the way Burnham’s camera simply watches. There are multiple conversation scenes staged in a two-shot (sometimes three, four, or even up to five) where the camera is locked down and does not cut away for an uncomfortably long period of time. Yet what is really impressive about this editing is how subtle it is. There is an excellent video essay on Youtube by Tony Zhou (linked below) on the stealthiness of Spielberg’s long takes, and Burnham is equally unflashy with his. If editing is about knowing exactly when to cut, then Eighth Grade is a masterclass in it, as Burnham and editor Jennifer Lilly leave each shot running just long enough for the viewer to marinate in the awkwardness ubiquitous with the early teenage experience, but never to the point where it calls attention to its own cleverness.
3. This is not to say that Burnham is against pulling out some flashy moves when the situation calls for it. The scene where Kayla has to attend a pool party is a masterpiece of ratcheting tension, as her anxiety-ridden freakout in the bathroom at having to walk out in her bathing suit (all quick cuts and blaring score) segues into an almost silent tracking shot of her walking through the swathe of ‘cool kids’. Similarly, after an encounter with a high-school student goes terribly wrong, Burnham utilises the same trick, cutting out the sound while tracking Kayla’s panicked run to her room, except this time with a jerky handheld camera rather than a Steadicam. Burnham’s crowning achievement in Eighth Grade, however, might be that he outdoes David Goddamn Fincher in deploying a pop song in a scene. The song in question is Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’ (y’know, the one that goes ‘sail away sail away sail away’), and it is used to delightful effect to soundtrack a montage of Kayla’s engrossment in social media, which, honestly, is just a smidgen cleverer than ironically playing it over a torture scene (as in Fincher’s version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).
4. Burnham’s day job is stand-up comedian, and thus to the surprise of absolutely nobody, Eighth Grade is hilarious. As expected, it takes utter delight in poking fun at the usual suspects – a single shot of a teacher dabbing made my entire spinal cord cringe – but the genius of its humour lies in two things: (i) the dramatic irony between Kayla and the presumably adult viewer’s perspective and (ii) Burnham’s total willingness to go there. What is there, you ask? There is Burnham wringing morbid humour out of the constant school shooter drills the kids have to participate in. Making jokes about school shootings is a high bar to clear, but Eighth Grade goes one better by setting an entire scene of Kayla awkwardly attempting to seduce her crush with the promise of nudes during a lockdown drill, which frankly has to be set some kind of inappropriate laughter record. Once again though, it speaks highly of the film and its director that the joke is never at Kayla’s expense. Yes, the film clearly recognises that Kayla’s middle-school anxieties are relatively minute in the grand scheme of things, but even more importantly, understands that to her these small problems mean everything, and never once mocks her for them.
5. None of this is possible without Elsie Fisher’s precociously charming performance. Burnham has talked about how he cast Fisher because other child actors felt like confident kids pretending to be shy while she felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident, which is a perfect summation of her portrayal of Kayla. So much of Fisher’s performance involves having to be silent and react, as befitting Kayla’s wallflower status, and she has a wonderful ability to convey complex thought and emotion through subtle changes in facial expression. The scenes of Kayla talking to the camera in her youtube videos (ironically encouraging others to be more confident and positive) are a masterclass in acting, with Fisher giving layers and layers of depth through nothing more than a single lengthy close-up of her talking. The hidden gem of the film, however, is Josh Hamilton’s performance as Kayla’s profoundly uncool dad trying desperately to find a way to understand and connect with his daughter. When they do eventually bond, in an absolutely lovely fireside scene, it is heartbreaking in its raw honesty.
6. The point that Eighth Grade makes is this – our protagonist is open, kind and gentle in a world where such attributes are seen as weaknesses. That much has been established by other media relating to early adolescence. Where Burnham’s film really outshines its counterparts is its refusal to entertain cynicism. It would have been easy to end on a dark and dour tone of ‘realism’, or to even make the nasty point that the adult world is really just the teenage world writ large. But by choosing to end on a high note for Kayla, Eighth Grade vaults into the pantheon of the bildungsroman and cements itself as one of the most sensitive and empathetic films ever made of the teenage experience. Yes, things are terrible. Yes, nobody understands you. And yes, you might never be the person you want so desperately hard to be.
But things do get better, if only a little. And, as someone who has taught teenagers of that age, I will say that as clichéd a statement as it might be, it is certainly one that many of them need to hear. As such, not only is Eighth Grade highly recommended, but if you know someone of that age, I implore you to do them a favour and show them the film. If not, then do yourself a favour and watch it. At the very least, it will make you intensely grateful that you are no longer, and will never need to be, thirteen years old.