If you’re a hungry creative, there’s nothing quite like Bo Burnham’s IMDb page to serve you a good slice of humble pie with a side of incentive. The things this talented polymath has accomplished in his young career would coax out the green-eyed monster in the best of us. The YouTube alum has already run the gamut of entertainment since he burst onto the scene in 2006, impressing audiences with various creations. His wonderfully empathetic debut feature, Sundance favourite Eighth Grade, heralds a quantum leap for Burnham and the dawn of an entirely new era in teen cinema.
This lovely comedy-drama follows Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), an eighth-grader struggling through the last week of a crummy spell at middle school. Embarrassingly voted ‘Most Quiet’ by fellow students, this internet fiend’s self-help vlogs and social media tell a different story. There, behind the protection of a screen, Kayla puts herself across as ‘funny, cool, and talkative.’ In reality, she’s a shrinking violet, but that won’t stand in her way.
Eighth Grade opens with Kayla stumbling over her words as she dispenses life advice to a non-existent audience. She’s recording a video on, like, the importance of being yourself and, like, not giving a jot what people think of you. Why am I using the lingo of a 13-year-old? Because Burnham litters Kayla’s vlogs with it, packing his characters’ dialogue with sharply cool – is it still cool to say ‘cool?’ – post-millennial references. As infuriating and unfamiliar as these may be to anyone happily beyond their teen years, they’re relevant and contemporary. Gucci!
The same qualities characterise this refreshingly sincere and original tale throughout. Burnham strives to reassure shy young people that it’s all right to struggle with social anxiety and that things will inevitably get better. The writer-director cleverly crafts a series of scenarios as Kayla’s quest for self-acceptance pushes on. Among them are a subtly disturbing backseat game of Truth or Dare with predatory older kid Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), an awkward exchange about a banana with caring single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton), and a spot of opportunistic coquetry with bland teen dreamboat Aiden (Luke Prael). Bookending the bulk of such seminal experiences are a pool party hosted by standard-issue mean girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and a subsequent gratifying dressing-down of said mean girl.
Complementing Kayla’s formative moments is an entrancing, pulsating, synthy score by Anna Meredith, blended perfectly with golden needle drops by the likes of Enya – both innately timely. On top of this, we have cheerfully effective long-takes and slow-motion shots, balanced by more serious set pieces. This all works in harmony with Burnham’s shrewd choice of lead, Fisher’s absorbingly raw and nuanced performance without fault. She develops every one of Kayla’s foibles and quirks with flair, her believably sweet father-daughter relationship given the same organic treatment.
Eighth Grade is a victoriously acute – and, in parts, surprisingly hilarious – endeavour to throw light on today’s misunderstood, internet-addicted Gen Z; not ‘narcissistic’ but ‘self-conscious.’ Burnham nails Kayla’s cruddy middle school experience so damn hard it’s almost as if he was, at one point, a teenage girl. He may very well have been. Either way, all that’s of importance is he gets it. The topic of teen loneliness in cinema is nothing ground-breaking – covered most recently by Jonah Hill’s powerful coming-of-age drama mid90s – but the success of this story also hangs on its relevance, not only to youth but to anybody of any age caught up in an insular world of diffidence. Whoever you are, this ‘lit,’ down-to-earth film will speak to the introvert in you.