Written and Directed by Bo Burnham
**** (four stars)
"...they're quite aware of what they're going through..."
-David Bowie ("Changes")
I hated eighth grade.
Out of all of my years of schooling growing up, regardless of varying levels academic difficulty, there was no other year in my memory and reality that, to this day, instills such intense emotions. I remember that school year of 1982-1983 in full details, from its confounding, confusing beginnings to its miserable end absolutely vividly, completely and painfully--made even morseo, due to its arrival after the joyride that was seventh grade.
It was a year that served to fully pummel my already precarious sense of self-confidence. Aside from my strong performance in a brutal French class, my especially poor academic standing that year only felt fit to fuel a certain sense of early adolescent apathy that clashed with the increasingly enraged demands and palpable disappointment of my extremely strict and academically driven parents, who themselves were public school high school educators who rightfully had no time or money to waste upon my hefty private school tuition if I was not going to bother to either fully apply myself.
Yet, even with the relentless "under the microscope" attention from my parents to contend with, it was the social life at school that quickly became an emotional minefield, so much so, that I firmly believe that this particular year set the stage for many issues that I have lived with long into adulthood. Issues of body image, of racial identity and self-acceptance, of interpersonal fairness, of social competitiveness with peers or otherwise and always feeling undervalued and unaccepted, to even issues with self-parenting of which I am admittedly unforgiving and to my own detriment. It was also the year during which I had my heart so broken that it paved deep trenches into what I felt not only what love and relationships could or could not be, but even to questioning the value of love in the first place as there are no guarantees for love's reciprocation or endurance no matter how much or how deeply you give love to that other individual.
Frankly, that year nearly broke me as it hurt so constantly and seemingly endlessly. In fact, I have long realized that perhaps I was not alone in my feelings for when I attended my 20th high school reunion, I had a powerfully insightful conversation with a lovely classmate who, at the time of the reunion, was a professional therapist.
"What happened to us, Scott?" she asked.
"How do you mean?" I asked in return.
"Well, it felt like in 6th and 7th grade, we were all friends and then, we got to 8th grade and we all just hated each other. I really had no idea of what happened or how or why. "
I knew exactly what she meant.
I hated eighth grade. And yet, for as much as I hated it, thank God that there was no such thing as Social Media at that time!
Dear readers, please allow me to tell you about how much I loved "Eighth Grade," the filmmaking debut from Writer/Director Bo Burnham. This is easily one of the finest films of 2018 as well as existing as one of the saddest due to its painfully perceptive approach which often feels like a "fly-on-wall" documentary rather than a fictionalized narrative.
What Burnham has achieved is a film that is exceedingly lived in and emotionally wrestled with yet is also meticulously observant that it simultaneously has much to say about the conclusion of the Middle School experience, itself a period of life that rarely receives any media attention in the movies or television, as well as our ever increasing cultural dependence/addiction towards Social Media. And yet, even with its tendency to cut to the bone in full recognition on what it means to be 12 or 13 years old, "Eighth Grade" also represents that exquisite splash of adult wisdom that allows the film to have some modicum of hopefulness, that light at the end of the tunnel, that signifies that this precarious time can be survived. This is a powerfully remarkable film.
"Eighth Grade" stars the wonderful Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, who we witness during her final week of Middle School all the way through to her graduation, with the anticipations and fears of entering high school looming largely.
While essentially plotless, Burnham creates a "slice of life" experience that allows us a front row seat into Kayla's emotionally and turbulently awkward social experiences and relationships with classmates as well as her single Dad, Mark (an equally terrific Josh Hamilton) as well as her vibrantly alive inner world, which is fretfully, anxiously, hopefully, and often distressingly attempting to make sense of her life.
While at home, Kayla creates a collection of You Tube videos which are designed to serve as messages of advice for social acceptance by one's peers to her peers (and all of which conclude with her personal sign off "Gucci!"), it is advice that she is barely able to utilize for herself when in public.
In her videos, Kayla is rather loquacious and socially astute, yet in person, she rarely speaks a word, preferring to remain silent to the point of being nearly invisible...except when she is presented the bewildering public "award" of "Quietest Student" during an all school assembly. And in later scenes as she attempts to catch the attention of the skinny, sleepy eyed popular bad boy Aiden (Luke Prael), or when she reluctantly attends a highly popular classmate's pool party, words fail her, she is unable to connect to anyone and just regard how she folds her body inwards upon itself, as if she could box herself into nothingness. And then, poor Kayla's social anxiety mounts until that blessed moment when she can return to the cocoon of her Smartphone, walling out the real world as she seeks some sense of validation in the virtual world, while taking her pain and angrily lashing out against her loving, yet equally awkward, Dad in the process.
Earlier this summer, I criticized Brad Bird's "Incredibles 2" for existing as yet another movie to trot out cliched attitudes about Fathers yet since then, I have been so very pleased to see movies that do present Fathers in more favorably realistic fashion, serving as a much needed antidote.
Specifically, I am surprised to see that "Eighth Grade" is actually the third film I have seen in these few moths that features a stirring Father/daughter dynamic, from movies as varied as John Krasinski's thriller "A Quiet Place" and Brett Haley's exquisite quasi-musical "Hearts Beat Loud." In fact, as I watched "Eighth Grade," my mind turned often to "Hearts Beat Loud" as that film could almost serve as a sequel, or better yet, a companion piece to the events depicted in "Eighth Grade" as Fathers are so deeply in love with their children and yet are housed with an aching pain of not being able to fully connect with their respective daughters, and therefore, fearing a loss of parental access, let alone communication. And yet, within "Eighth Grade" there is that elephant in the room, the elephant so large that it possesses space so enormous that it threatens to separate us from each other entirely.
If there has ever been a film that could serve as an indictment of Social Media, Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" could very well be that film as I do not think that I have ever felt such dismay at the sight of those glowing Smartphone and laptop screens as I did during this film. Burnham's film feels to be of a piece with David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010) and Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013), as both of those films serve as cultural warnings through their visions of our society at the dawn of Social Media and a darkly imagined future, respectively.
Yet, what warning could serve the greatest impact but to present the world as we know it just as it is regarding our over-reliance, and again, I feel that Burnham is arguing is actually a societal addiction to Social Media, an addiction that is indeed fueling a certain spiritual decay? Through the character of Kayla Day, her daily journey is a mirror of our own as our nothing less than our sense of existentialism is now being found, and nurtured, such as it is, within the digital world and we are all left feeling somewhat emptier in the process.
I think one of the most telling sequences in the film regarding this concept exists within the aforementioned birthday pool party sequence when the birthday girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) opens up her presents in full view of her guests as her Mother not-so-surreptitiously snaps photos, most likely to upload, thus continuing an on-line narrative about the wonderment of her and her daughter's lives, yet in actuality, everyone seems to be miserable as the jaded Kennedy openly scoffs at Kayla's gift, thus humiliating her.
At school, Kayla attempts to try to connect with classmates but they are all lost in their phones. Another sequence late in the film and set at the local shopping mall, where Kayla has been invited by the affectionately chirpy high school student Olivia (Emily Robinson) to join her and her high school friends in the Food Court, all of the kids discuss the times during which they were first exposed and allowed to utilize Social Media, during which we learn that Kayla first used Snapchat while in the 5th grade.
Beyond those sequences, Kayla is rarely seen without her phone and earbuds, the synthetic glow illuminating her sadness day and deeply into the night and with no sense of absolution. Her Dad, Mark is also not immune as he also retreats to his digital world late at night, with that same synthetic glow illuminating his sadness after another evening of being unable to connect with Kayla. And so, in "Eighth Grade," Bo Burnham has expertly fashioned an examination of a culture consumed with loneliness within the very medium that was supposed to bring us all together and for those in early adolescence, the misery of not ever being able to get away from the social dynamics that are hurting us in the first place.
Even with all of this material, it could be argued that Social Media does indeed serve a certain purpose for even though Kayla is consumed with loneliness, she does utilize Social Media, her You Tube channel and videos specifically to work out her issues, her problems, her fears and possible solutions to each area...even if she is unable to bring them into fruition in the real world. Essentially, her videos become messages of self-affirmation. In many ways, Kayla is the embodiment of the David Bowie quotation that has opened this posting and has iconically, served as the opening statement to the ultimate cinematic exploration of adolescence, John Hughes' "The Breakfast Club" (1985).
For as much as we in the audience ache with and for her, we can also see that Kayla Day is a girl who knows herself and her limitations extremely well, therefore knowing precisely what she is going through as well as the problem solving she undertakes in order to emotionally survive this painful time. On a more crucial level, and during a truly frightening extended sequence set in the back seat of a car between Kayla and a high school boy, regarding how she navigates this predicament showcases a palpable strength that she (and we in the audience) possibly never realized she possessed.
Since that specific time, which for me concluded with Cameron Crowe's golden "Say Anything..." (1989), which itself held a terrific central heroine as played by Ione Skye, we have been given creative films with three dimensional heroines and viewpoints as varied as Mark Waters and Tina Fey's "Mean Girls" (2004), Will Gluck's "Easy A" (2010), James Ponsoldt's"The Spectacular Now" (2013), Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" (2016) and Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" (2017). And now, Bo Burnham has deftly picked up that mantle and has created one of the best young female characters I have seen in film due to the sheer purity of the conception of Kayla Day and Elsie Fisher's miraculous performance of her.
Elsie Fisher's performance is one of expert authenticity as she never once strikes a false note or delves into hyperbole or melodrama. Again, she creates a piercing realty of the type that I had to check and re-check to see that she is indeed a gifted actress and that this film is not a documentary. Fisher ensures that you understand and sympathize with Kayla every moment of the film, even during points when she is infuriating and downright cruel to her Dad, lending to many moments when you would just wish to reach into the film to try and offer this girl some comfort. Believe me, Fisher is so powerfully effective that in the moment when Kayla is invited to the mall, meaning that finally, at long last, she may have found a real life friend, she will just shatter you with her vulnerability and you just wish for her full acceptance and overall happiness.
To that end, when she faces disappointments or is confronted with her own wishes for herself as evidenced through the school assignment of a time capsule made in 6th grade to be re-opened before the 8th grade graduation, Kayla Day's existential crisis reaches a certain pinnacle as she is forced to ask herself serious questions concerning her own sense of self-worth, whether she is deserving of love and acceptance and whether she could ever truly be the person she wishes to become, the self-described "Coolest Girl On Earth"--yet, not through any sense of prefabricated popularity but what I felt to be a certain sense of self-assuredness and accomplishment.
Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" took me directly back to that wretched school year of my past, PTSD flashbacks and all. But, Burnham achieved this feat with a superior artistry and empathy that did serve to beautifully soothe the wounds of the past. Yet most importantly, and just as what Richard Linklater achieved with his masterpiece, "Boyhood" (2014), Burnham delivered an intelligent, deeply felt, richly sensitive chronicle of a young girl with a matter-of-fact quality that perfectly allowed the inherent drama of the story, character and age to present itself without provocation.
For those Middle School years are more than turbulent enough.