#46 — Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham, 2018)
Crafting a poignant, painful seriocomic film about the travails of middle school isn’t that novel of a feat any longer. The time-tested subgenre of coming of age films has long since expanded from winsome and sentimental to include an assessment of growing up that shows the deep emotional bruises inflicted along the way. And much of Bo Burnham’s debut feature, Eighth Grade, admittedly seems familiar, clicking through both the fleeting near-victories buoyed by starry-eyed hope and the tiny defeats that seem massive in the moment, expanded by a youthful helplessness to experience every feeling at its most intense level. Every bit of the film’s emotional trajectory is right and true, and Burnham has a devious ability to set the audience tingling with anguish and dread by exploiting an awareness of how quickly a moment in a young life — especially a girl’s life — can turn devastating wrong. Burnham is too humane in his sensibility to deliver the most brutal narrative blows, but he is also too honest to reject the possibility of danger altogether.
What sets Eighth Grade apart — and makes it feel almost revolutionary — is its keen awareness of the different ways the social world works for the generation still years away from legal adulthood. Burnham ascended in the entertainment community in large part because of his own facility with YouTube and other online video resources when they were still emerging technologies, and he clearly understands the way digital interconnectivity is a knotty trap that ensnares individuals still struggle to identify their sense of self. His protagonist, Kayla (played marvelously by Elsie Fisher), is awkward at school and when stepping forward to face associated social firing lines, but she puts out a more confident version of herself in advice videos recorded in her bedroom. Then she waits forlornly for the views and likes that trickle in like a dried up creek. Without offering tedious exposition, Burnham gets at how that struggle for validation feels, and, in his lack of fuss, suggests that it;s not a particularly new phenomenon for U.S. teens. It merely plays out in a different way.
When the film was in its initial release, Burnham spoke with a mildly perplexed wonderment about the untaped potential of smartphones and laptops in movies, not only as a reflection of how people commonly interact out in the real world, but also as a source of picturesque cinematic expression. Someone fiddling away at their phone, their face knotted in concentration, is providing their own uplighting, after all. In a commonplace interaction with technology, there’s a striking positioning of the light source that filmmakers would otherwise strain to create. This simple observation reveals the greatest strength of Burnham as he begins his proper filmmaking career. Without abandoning the revered fundamentals of film storytelling, Burnham finds his own way, his own approach, his own visual grammar. Eighth Grade has a timeless melancholy precisely because it’s bound to a specific place and time. That seems an approach so obvious that it should be commonplace, but it takes an uncommon level of bravery to undertake it. Like Kayla facing a social circle instinctively hostile to her, Burnham operates with a undercurrent of courage that’s incredibly admirable.