Independent Film Festival of Boston 2018: Eighth Grade, by Sarah Brinks
Eighth Grade is the type of movie that makes you laugh out loud, cringe, and cry all in the same scene. Director and writer Bo Burnham’s debut film take an unflinchingly close look at how brutal it is to be a teenage girl in eighth grade, especially in 2018 with the additional pressure from social media.
Eighth Grade tells the story of Kayla Day’s last week in eighth grade. Elsie Fisher plays Kayla in an outstandingly brave and vulnerable performance. Kayla is an outsider. She’s one of the quietest girls in class, she has no friends, but she has a vibrant life online and on social media. Kayla doesn’t have perfect skin, or cool clothes, or the perfect body, but she is creative, kind, and so eager to be accepted. She makes short advice videos online for people to help them be themselves, to take risks, and embrace life all while struggling in her real life to get through the day at school. Fisher captures Kayla with her performance perfectly. She takes risks, puts herself out there, and fearlessly puts everything on the screen for the audience.
I often look around the subway or restaurants and see teenagers on their phone and think how difficult it must be to raise a child in this day and age with so much technology and social media. Eighth Grade shows us the challenges that Kayla’s dad faces as a single parent raising a bright teenager. She huffs at him, rolls her eyes, and is embarrassed of him nearly all the time. To his credit he hangs in there, supports her, and tries to be there as much as he can. The scenes between Kayla and her dad are some of my favorite in the film. Josh Hamilton plays Kayla’s dad with heart breaking sincerity.
Music plays a big part in the film. Burnham uses predominantly electronic music from composer Anna Meredith. The often-bombastic soundtrack serves to put you in Kayla’s shoes and often matches her mood or experience with the music. Equally powerful are the scenes with no music at all. The absence of any distraction serves to heighten the tension in certain scenes or underscore how awkward Kayla feels. He even uses it to underscore Kayla’s crush on “best eyes in the class” award winner Aiden. The first few times we see him as blasting sexy bass underscores his movement across the screen and we understand how Kayla feels when she sees him.
Eighth Grade has a way of hitting you right between the eyes with the real-life turmoil of being a teenager no matter how old you are now. I think anyone who went to eighth grade in America will see some of their personal experience in the film. Opening night films are typically met by an eager audience but the reactions to the scenes in Eighth Grade were palpable, it reminded me of my experience of going to see Get Out last year in the same theater and how reactive the audience was to that film. Eighth Grade made the audience squirm, cry, laugh, and cheer.
Burnham manages to grasp the experience of being a teenage girl with surprising accuracy. He captures how hard it is to try and fit in. I think Burnham is a film maker to keep an eye on in the future. He seems to have his finger on the pulse of our current society and isn’t afraid to deep dive in to all aspects of that. Having never attended film school and spent most of his career as a standup comedian he has a bold style of filmmaking. He’s not afraid to have an active camera but kept it from being distracting. I am eager to see what other stories he wants to tell. I am equally eager to see how Elsie Fisher’s career develops. I hope she can find other opportunities to give vulnerable and effortless-looking performances.