I’m going to guess that if you’re reading this, you’ve gone through puberty at some point. If you haven’t then I’m very impressed at your burgeoning interest in film, but get out now so you don’t become as cynical as me.
Joking aside, puberty is a tough time for us all; our hormones are in complete disarray, we suddenly turn from a normal human being, into a gremlin that only communicates through sarcasm and grunting, and we’re just generally not nice people to be around. Granted, some of this is because there are a million nagging thoughts going through your head at any one time, but as a rule, teenagers are uncommunicative, and nowadays, extremely superficial.
As I can well grasp, puberty is much harder if you’re female, something I can entirely sympathise with, even if I’m ignorant to its realities, and there have been many portrayals of puberty in film, but none as seemingly honest as this one.
I was drawn to this film by its writer/director, Bo Burnham, whose work I am a huge fan of, the times I have waxed lyrical about his comedy performances don’t bear thinking about and Make Happy might just be the greatest comedy special in the past 20 years, so to say I was intrigued by his debut film was an understatement. Coupled with the good-will it seems to have from everywhere else it has been shown, and it made me very excited for its eventual arrival here in the UK, but how does Bo make the transition?
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is an introverted teenage girl, giving advice on YouTube videos, advice she doesn’t usually take herself. She is going into the last week of eighth grade, and has to contend with the usual social hurdles of being a teenage girl in a social media-dominated world.
For those who aren’t aware, Bo Burnham started his career on YouTube over 10 years ago, with that in mind, seeing him incorporate YouTube and social media into his films is bizarre, but oddly refreshing, as here’s someone with first hand experience of this new age of social media, presenting an honest account of what it’s like.
The fault of more recent coming-of-age films is their use of social media as a plot device, many don’t seem to have a handle of its influence and prevalence on teenage society, your life is lived through your Instagram followers, or your Snapchat friends.
What Burnham has managed to capture here, is a brutally honest look at modern teenage life, in all its superficial charm. Firstly you have Kayla, an introverted girl who makes YouTube videos seemingly no-one watches, she spends a good amount of run-time of the film on her phone, be it on Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat, she lives her life through her phone, and what’s more, the people she’s trying to impress do too.
There’s a great amount of characterisation in this film too, I don’t know how much of himself Bo put into the character of Kayla, but I always seemed to gleam from his comedy shows that he was a lot like she was when he was younger, in fact, most of his act, especially in his early days, was based around the fact he was an outcast, he built on this later, with a song that reflected on how your popularity goes up with fame, and it feels like he’s putting a lot of his struggles onto his main character, using her as an avatar for his bottled-up, barely-contained angst.
This isn’t to say she’s your textbook ‘nerdy girl’ you see in other high school films, she pushes herself into new situations, often visibly uncomfortable, and her overcoming her struggles no matter how gingerly, makes her endearing, and I dare she she will strike a cord with those of my generation who feels the same angst.
The dialogue is also inch perfect for the subject material. I’ve heard dialogue which is so accurately representative of how teenagers speak. There’s a lot of trepidation, the repeated use of the word ‘like’ and ‘erm’ especially when Kayla is recording her videos, which is great because that’s how people sound, especially when they’re nervous, and it’s balanced perfectly across the film, the adults get a fairer spread, but try to hard to be ‘cool’ in the way teenagers hate, it’s a masterclass in dialogue writing.
The dialogue isn’t the only strength to the screenplay however, as there are certain scenes in which you can feel the anxiousness from the characters, there’s an expertly weighted scene in the films second act, in which Kayla is almost forced into doing something she doesn’t want too, and it made her, and the audience, visibly uncomfortable, and not in a bad way, the execution wasn’t heavy handed, it put the protagonist in a situation she was uncomfortable in, and because we’d grown attached to her, we felt her anguish.
There’s so much to love about this movie that to list them all would become a laborious read, but so much of it is so well-judged; from the way in which adults patronisingly try and make themselves empathise with teenagers, to the films use of music, to the deft and striking direction, but if there’s one thing that I will take away, it is Elsie Fisher’s performance.
For such a young actress to so skilfully embody a role such as Kayla is staggering, but for all the weight of the script, the character quirks, the delivery, Fisher nails everything, Eighth Grade is an astonishingly good debut for Burnham, but it is helped tremendously by an incredibly engaging and dynamic leading performance.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that I struggle to think of criticism for, and I bet if I thought long and hard enough, I’d at least think of one thing, but to do so would do a disservice to the film, and the message it brings.
Overall then, a staggering first directorial effort from Bo Burnham, I don’t know what the future holds fo him, but I’m sure his future is bright, and as for Elsie Fisher, the sky is the limit. Eighth Grade came with a lot of praise, and it more than lives up to every bit of it.