A look at the unusual authenticity in Bo Burnham’s directorial debut.
The era of John Hughes is over. Idyllic movies about buoyant teenagers who have blissful lives and deal with superficial problems are now artifacts. The brilliance of Hughes was that during the decade he was able to show how seemingly insignificant problems are monumental struggles for teenagers.
Today, if someone made a Hughes film, the characters (all upper-middle class, white, probably politically apathetic and generally quite shallow) would be criticized for being unrealistic and unsympathetic. In 2019, coming-of-age movies need a new cinematic language to communicate the tribulations of adolescence.
Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” is one of the first major films to be made by someone born in the 1990s. The significance of his age is relevant to the film itself because it is the most authentic display of what it is like to be young in the late 2010s. “Eighth Grade” revolves around social anxiety, mental illness, sexual harassment and discovering personhood when the Internet allows people to invent entire personas for themselves.
The film follows Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) during her last weeks of middle school. She has a YouTube channel where she gives advice for how to be popular and confident, but she herself deals with social anxiety and is awarded “Most Quiet” in the end of the year superlatives. The film is about her trying to follow her own advice in the few weeks before she moves on to ninth grade.
The entire film is reliant on Fisher’s truly revelatory performance. She brings an impressive amount of complexity to her character’s struggles with self-image.
The fact that she is basically the same age as an actual eighth grader supplements her role as it is certainly a departure from typical high school movies that cast grown adults instead of actual teenagers, (whoever cast 24-year-old Tom Welling in Smallville apparently has never seen a 14-year-old boy).
The brilliance of Burnham’s screenplay is in its straightforwardness. There are no insane pyrotechnics to show sexual discovery as in Weird Science, no sweeping musical number like in Grease and no oppressive adult figures like in Footloose. Everything is refreshingly normal.
The cinematography is simple consisting of just simple pans, zooms and cuts and it allows the power of the script and the performances to come to the forefront.
The dialogue is beautifully grounded in the ways teenagers actually speak to each other. Fisher’s first couple scenes with her dad (Josh Hamilton) are painfully relatable for anyone who went through puberty. The chemistry between the two shines brightest in a scene near the end when Hamilton delivers a powerful monologue that cuts down all the stereotypes of parents in coming-of-age movies.
If this movie is accomplishing anything, it would be the breaking of stereotypes. Kayla is not the basket case, the cheerleader, or part of the recent onslaught of incredibly dull teenage protagonists in incredibly dull Netflix shows. She has a distinctive voice that cannot be categorized or stereotyped into any one caste. There are no descriptions of various cliques in her school and the teachers mostly exist as set decorations and not active participants in Kayla’s fortune or misfortune.
Kayla does not have to win a championship game or bring down the house at the school musical. Her goals are simple and understandable, yet they are equally, if not more, compelling than films where characters become “the best.”
While this may sound like a fluffy film that is light on drama, it certainly has its moments where that is not the case. There is one very heavy scene in particular that brings the film’s level of authenticity to an apex to show that villains in real life are almost never the spoiled rich girl or the bitter principal.
Audiences love Hughes’s movies and other coming-of-age movies of that era because, at the end of the day, they are fantasies.
In my experience, older people love to tell younger generations about their time as a young person using grandiose language, exaggerated storytelling devices and usually includes a lesson to be learned in the end. This creates more of a mythological fable than a retelling of actual events, and audiences young and old are captivated by it.
“Eighth Grade” incorporates no fantastical tropes, but is able to capture more effectively, in my opinion, the actual depths of what its characters are going through at that age. Kayla tells her tiny Youtube audience that they should “just be themselves” in order to be the most well-rounded person they can. While this is cliche in a self-help book, for film, this is a radical notion and I believe this film is proof that it works beautifully.