Before seeing Eighth Grade, I wasn’t familiar with the work of director Bo Burnham. This is not a surprise: Burnham achieved fame through YouTube, a medium I’m unfamiliar with since, well, I’m over thirty.
That context is important, though, because it stands to reason that a YouTuber would be the first person to make a truly contemporary coming-of-age movie. The subject matter here is familiar – the awkwardness of the early teen years – but it sets itself apart through appropriate casting (pre-teens played by actual pre-teens) and authentic incorporation of social media.
One of my pet peeves for years has been teen films that, while otherwise excellent, failed to substantively incorporate modern technology into their fabric; films like The Edge of Seventeen that were really about ‘90s culture with a modern coat of paint. Eighth Grade is different. Protagonist Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is an awkward, quiet girl who struggles to fit in with her peers, but she’s still intensely involved with social media, whether scrolling through Instagram, browsing Tumblr or recording her own YouTube videos.
Those videos – where Kayla offers her own generic, awkward and clumsily-recited life advice – form the framing device for the film, with her tentative thoughts often playing over scenes of social trauma. ‘Trauma’ is perhaps an overstatement; aside from a terrifying scene in the backseat of a car, Kayla’s social interactions are terrifying in their mundanity. She’s a good kid from a good family (her dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), is well-intended but cringe incarnate), but it’s easy to relate to her inept attempts to flirt, make friends or even conduct a casual conversation.
Burnham – who also penned the screenplay – large opts for a loose, almost plotless structure. Kayla is in her final years of middle school, nervously anticipating high school and becoming increasingly aware of her inability to really fit in. She dabbles in makeup, attends a pool party and anxiously latches onto a high school student (Emily Robinson). The intent is to evoke that ungainly feeling of feeling perpetually out of place, and Eighth Grade often succeeds.
What keeps the film from greatness, for me, is its reluctance to hold its gaze. This is supposed to be a high school horror film sans violence, but true social horror comes from discomfort. Burnham demonstrates a knack for this, but spends too much of the film cutting too early, or blunting the impact by drowning out diegetic sound with Kayla’s YouTube voiceovers or music. One scene in particular felt like a misfire to me, where Kayla breaks out in karaoke at the aforementioned pool party in an attempt to ‘put herself out there,’ but we don’t hear a note of her performance.
I was similarly unimpressed by the film’s good-natured conclusion. It’s not necessarily that it’s out of place; after all, most people emerge from their middle school years with substantially more social nous than they had beforehand. It’s more that it feels a little unearned, unexamined – an extra draft away from coherency. Optimism is fine, and it’s hardly a ‘happily ever after’ ending, but there’s a neatness to the denouement that chafes against the film that preceded it.
Perhaps that looseness is testament to the film’s YouTube pedigree, but again, I’m not really the person to draw that conclusion. Nonetheless, it’s so rare to see a film that makes an honest effort to connect with today’s teenagers – rather than, say, the youth of two decades prior – that these nitpicks can be easily forgiven. While Eighth Grade might be a reminder that I don’t really want to relive eighth grade, its success will hopefully herald more coming-of-age films aligned with the digital realities of this decade.