In front then behind the scenes of a Youtube video, we meet Kayla. It’s an appropriate window into writer-director (who also got his start on YouTube) Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. Kayla’s posting a video on how to be confident. It’s immediately clear she’s not. Instead, the teenager, played by the wonderful Elsie K Fisher, is everything we remember about being 14. She’s anxiety-filled, acne-ridden and totally self-aware. We follow her in her last week of the eighth grade and realise how slow seven days can feel when you’re awkward and gawky and just want to fit in.
Eighth Grade is a portal to our younger selves. Endless insecurities surge again as we watch Kayla doubt herself. Fisher’s performance gives depth to seemingly superficial worries and beyond-her-years clarity to a character her own age. Her eyes glint with the fearful hope of a dear in the headlights (except it’s just the realities of growing up barrelling towards her). Her father (Josh Hamilton) makes it clear that even as one ages they still never know what to say let alone when to say it. That’s one of Eight Grade’s many conceits: showing the specificities of an age that, in actual fact, lasts longer than could’ve even been anticipated. Burnham creates a point of access for all viewers to ache along with Eighth Grade.
The protagonist’s sense that everyone is looking at her when, in reality, they are wholly preoccupied with themselves adds to the constant unease. In a painstaking pool party scene, long shots show Kayla still and staring at the bodies of her classmates flinging themselves around her. Her isolation and her sense of self are always in relation to others who barely notice her. It is an embodiment of her online presence. Her videos go unwatched as a torrent of posts is uploaded around her. This kind of visual vocabulary shows Burnham’s strength as a director, delicately balancing the presence of technology but focusing more acutely to its isolating effects.
Burnham dismantles the pretence that a young and ever-more-transfixed-by-their-phone generation is incomprehensible. Instead, Eighth Grade lifts up the technological veil of Snapchat-centric teenagedom and reveals that the exact same truths and the exact insecurities of growing up remain unwaveringly true. That’s the poignancy of Eighth Grade. It is simultaneously of this time yet speaks gut-wrenching and timeless wisdom to the answerless question of how to grow up.
Eighth Grade is released in select cinemas on 26th April 2019.
Watch the trailer for Eighth Grade here: