Stand-up comic Bo Burnham writes and directs an impressive and startingly accurate teenage girl's coming-of-age tale.
We’ve become accustomed to expect certain things when watching a coming-of-age film; an age-appropriate actor cast in the lead role, turbulent romantic entanglements and combative classmates. However, Bo Burnham goes against the grain on all these clichés with his first feature film Eighth Grade.
Middle school student Kayla Day (Fisher) is a quiet and introverted young girl. During her final week of eighth grade, Kayla tries to navigate the battlefield of adolescence and ingratiate herself more with her peers, pushing her out of her comfort zone.
The film begins with Kayla filming a video for her YouTube channel. The topic of the video is all about being yourself and her channel consists of similarly themed content in which Kayla espouses advice and encouragement.
Her videos get next to no views and her vernacular is riddled with the fillers “like” and “um”, but this is no indication of her thoughtfulness or intelligence.
Kayla is kind and polite to everyone, apologising needlessly and stumbling over her words in every interaction.
She advises her non-existent YouTube following to have confidence, but she cannot execute what she preaches.
After being voted “Most Quiet” by her class, Kayla resolves to change the way that she is perceived and creates a list of things that she wants to achieve, including have a best friend and get a boyfriend. However, the process of potentially obtaining these is achingly awkward and painful for Kayla (and the viewer).
She is reluctantly invited to too-cool-to-care Kennedy’s pool party where she suffers a mild panic attack at the thought of stepping out in her swimming costume and attempts to win the fancy of her crush, Aiden, by making false claims and out-of-her-depth propositions.
Relative newcomer to the screen Elsie Fisher (she previously voiced Agnes in the first two entries of the Despicable Me franchise) makes all these growing pains feel immediately real and her performance transports us back to that informative period of our lives.
Every piece of anxious body language, every nervous glance and every line delivery appears spontaneous and Fisher’s nuances transcend from acting into simply being.
Not only does Eighth Grade effectively portray forms of social anxiety and fears that linger in adolescents, writer-director Burnham also captures the environment in which the generation depicted are growing up in. Technology, particularly smartphones and social media, is rarely missing from any given scene.
The eighth graders largely communicate through Instagram direct messaging (with a wry observation that Facebook has fallen out of fashion) and face-to-face exchanges are half-hearted as everyone is still too engrossed in their iPhones.
As touched on previously, there are no classic 'mean girls' spreading rumours or jock boys pushing the underdog into a locker as everyone is too concerned with what is happening inside their mobile device to look up.
Although she is ignored by her schoolmates and differs from them in many ways, her typical adolescent and teen tendencies shine through in her interactions with her father (Josh Hamilton), whose character gives Call Me By Your Name’s Mr. Perlman a run for his money in the competition for Best Movie Parent.
Kayla is acerbic and dismissive of her dad’s attempts to engage in very standard discussion, and even his silence causes her embarrassment and irritation.
However, their climactic conversation, that reveals Kayla’s most vulnerable state after a litany of crisis in confidences, is a moment of true emotional resonance. It’s tender, honest and moving – perfectly emblematic of the film itself.