On paper, it would be easy to dismiss Eighth Grade as just another high-school movie, infused as it is with the standard quotidian of Gen Z academic life from mean girls and crushes to clueless parents and teachers. And directed by a 27-year-old man, no less. What could the trials of a 13-year-old girl possibly teach an audience outside her demographic? But Bo Burnham’s authentic, warm and compassionate study of the struggle to connect and the human condition is utterly universal and a joy for any viewer, regardless of gender or graduation date.
Following a ‘quietest in class’ middle schooler in the last weeks of term before she moves to the larger shark-pool of high school, Eighth Grade charts the wobbly journey of Kayla from wannabe vlogger trying to live by the (actually sound) rules she espouses in painfully gauche self-help videos, to a teen comfortable in her skin and optimistic about her future. Without a makeover, glow-up or epiphany in sight.
That route is littered with recognisable mortifications, inequalities and social clangers. The cool-girl pool party Kayla is well-meaningly forced to go to in a hideous one-piece is a particularly delicate balance of cringe and courageousness, while her awkward interactions with school hottie Aiden (Luke Prael) are charmingly callow. She’s hideously embarrassed a lot – by her dad (Josh Hamilton), her sexual inexperience, her not-right-for-the-mall clothes, her teachers inexpertly doing the dab... But mostly by her dad, who tries – with heartbreaking tenderness and blundering – to talk to her when she’s screen-glued over dinner, protect her when she meets new friends and understand her mercurial moods and appetites (the scene where he catches her with the banana? OMG).
Terms of endearment
But Eighth Grade isn’t interested in mining laughs from the cruelty and fontrum of these perfectly calibrated moments. Nor is it looking to judge kids (even the apathetic queen bees who can’t appreciate a good board game), parents or school, much less the social media that is so integral to the story. And it doesn’t shy away from the darker implications of wanting to grow up so damn fast, as Kayla falls prey to an unscrupulous older boy on the backseat of his car.
What makes watching this such a wonderful and moving experience is the empathy and kindness with which Kayla is observed. Burnham’s background as a teen viral star, his exhaustive YouTube research and his determination to take his subject completely seriously result in heartwarming veracity. That believable, halting teen cadence is expertly harnessed and, when it’s combined with an intimate, sympathetic eye, Eighth Grade sometimes plays like a documentary or improv. Kayla seems fully rendered and real. And that makes her triumphs – however small – feel legitimate, earned and special. Her near-delirium at discovering a hip high-school girl (Emily Robinson) may be genuinely interested in her is infectious.
A maladroit date with a bungling suitor is as delicious to watch as the sauces he proffers. And a fireside chat with her dad that is up there with Call Me By Your Name’s papa pep talk is sure to prompt joyous tears. We could all use his speech about parental pride and self-assurance. That’s not to say that Burnham shies away from the harsher realities; that backseat scene with an older boy is so insidious and tense that it can only be viewed through anxious fingers, limbs twisted in tension.
Burnham’s assured penmanship and lensing would be nothing without the right performances, though. While Fisher is an absolute find – fearless and affecting whether she’s being brattish or brave, hurt or happy – she is supported by delightful, naturalistic turns that reflect Kayla back at us all the more brightly. Doing wonders with a mere look (mostly WTF), Hamilton’s dad emanates love despite his foolishness. And Jake Ryan’s breath-holding nerd is a genuine delight.
Together they represent the goodness, hope and optimism that exists in a world where school terrorism drills, bullying and sexual harassment are an undeniable part of 21st Century adolescence. They, and the film, remind us that behind all the bullshit, humanity ultimately craves connections – and the most important of those is the one with ourselves. Nothing short of profound – expect to see it in end-of-year top 10 lists even if it’s missed its awards window.
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- Release date: Out now (US)/April 26, 2019 (UK)
- Certificate: R (US)/15 (UK)
- Running time: 94 mins