**** (out of 4)
Every year seems to bring the release of yet another film (e.g. 2017’s Lady Bird, 2016’s The Edge of Seventeen, 2015’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl…) in which a hapless American teen has to deal with things like sex, crushes, self-image, and larger questions regarding identity and purpose. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade doesn’t exactly break this mold. Its protagonist, an iPhone-toting, Instagram-obsessed eighth grader named Kayla (Elsie Fisher), is the very epitome of today’s technophilic generation of American adolescents (a.k.a. “Generation Z.”). Plotwise, moreover, the film is all about Kayla’s attempts to grapple with the aforementioned problems during her final week in middle school.
Given the familiarity of its underlying narrative elements, Eighth Grade could easily have been just another run-of-the-mill “teen movie.” In reality, however, there are three reasons why it proves more memorable and meaningful than many of its genre predecessors. To start, unlike most teen movies, Eighth Grade concerns a middle schooler. We tend to think of high school and college as the places where people confront the challenges of growing up, a notion only reinforced by the fact that teen movies tend to be set in those venues. But as many writers (e.g. Peggy Orenstein, Jeffrey Kluger, Michael Lemonick, and Nancy Jo Sales) have documented, physiological factors and digital media have ensured that kids, especially young girls, now have to think about things like sexuality well before they turn 13. On a basic level, then, Eighth Grade is attuned to the times; children are growing up much faster than they were in the past, and the film’s subject matter bears ample testimony to that unsettling reality.
Its depiction of larger social phenomena aside, Eighth Grade also offers a remarkably perceptive portrayal of social media. Sites like Facebook and Instagram have become ubiquitous fixtures of modern-day life – but up till now, the film world’s attempts to analyze and represent their effects have largely fallen flat. Michael Haneke’s Happy End, for example, tried to illustrate the emotional disconnect engendered by technology, but the overall film was hampered by the snooty, moralizing attitude that it adopted towards its characters. Similarly, Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West sought to portray the dangers of social media addiction, but it ultimately represented said addiction as something that only afflicts the unhinged (read: people willing to kidnap and commit crimes for the sake of likes). As exemplified by these two works, past movies have tended to approach social media users with a superior, detached air, as though said users were aliens who suffered from a bizarre foreign disease.
Thankfully, Eighth Grade provides a much-needed corrective to these narrow depictions of social media. At the film’s start, we learn that Kayla has a self-help YouTube channel. We quickly see, however, that the tone and substance of her videos always run counter to the nature of her actual day-to-day experiences. In one scene, for example, we listen to Kayla deliver a monologue about the wonders of “putting yourself out there.” But this confident-sounding, wannabe-inspiring speech plays during the part of the film in which she attends the party of a more popular classmate (Catherine Oliviere). Far from being the party’s guest of honor, however, Kayla turns out to be an unwanted, “Mom told me to invite you, so I’m inviting you” addition to the gathering’s roster. At one point, in a shot that speaks to Kayla’s deep-rooted sense of insecurity, she’s shown standing forlornly in the dark behind a patio door, gazing longingly at her classmates as they happily play outside in the sun.
Like Happy End and Ingrid Goes West, Eighth Grade can be quite critical of social media. Whenever Kayla’s dad (Josh Hamilton) tries to talk to her, in fact, we see that Instagram has eroded whatever social skills she may have once had. Yet in contrast to Haneke and Spicer, Burnham doesn’t dismiss Kayla’s attachment to technology as freakish or contemptible. As indicated by the juxtaposition of Kayla’s videos and her pitiful real-life experiences, Kayla uses social media to try to make herself look “cool,” and she clearly hopes that that will help her get the attention and love of her peers. In that sense, Eighth Grade suggests that we like social media because it helps us act on our universal, painfully instinctive desire for others’ approval – even if we have to twist reality in the process. Instead of representing social media as the strange obsession of people who are different from the audience, Burnham’s portrayal of technology is thus imbued with psychological insight and empathy. Only people who’ve never felt self-conscious in their entire lives would be unable to relate to the resulting film.
Ultimately, what most stands out about Eighth Grade is its rejection of the notion that characters have to change. In many coming-of-age movies, the main characters have clearly become “better” by the story’s end: they’re more mature, more confident, more understanding, or more capable of resolving questions regarding their identity. To take just one example of this, in 2016’s The Edge of Seventeen, the protagonist, a high schooler named Nadine, starts out as a self-loathing loner who wants to go out with a classmate she finds physically attractive. Eventually, however, she sees that she’d be better off getting with someone she connects with emotionally – not just a guy who looks cute. And after realizing that she’s not the only person with problems in life, she also learns how to open up and make friends.
If Nadine follows a character arc that slowly but inexorably inclines upwards, Kayla conversely spends most of Eighth Grade going in circles. At the film’s start, she’s friendless, insecure, worried about her image, and utterly perplexed by her budding sexuality. And at the film’s end, she remains friendless, insecure, worried about her image, and utterly perplexed by her budding sexuality. Burnham certainly doesn’t suggest that Kayla is completely hopeless. In a potential harbinger of more meaningful interactions to come, for example, she’s eventually shown going on a playdate with a classmate (Jake Ryan) who’s just as withdrawn and isolated as she. But the closing scenes – most of which appropriately take the form of anticlimactic long takes – generally suggest that she’s far from resolving any of the many issues in her life.
If you’re accustomed to watching movies where “things happen,” Eighth Grade will probably leave you a bit frustrated. But as with Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, Eighth Grade’s directionless narrative ultimately serves a good purpose. When you think about it, after all, maturity isn’t something you acquire after a few sudden, life-altering realizations à la Nadine. Rather, it’s something you imperceptibly attain in fits, starts, plateaus, and regressions over an agonizingly extended period of time, and Eighth Grade’s structure testifies to the haphazard, seemingly interminable nature of that process. By bucking narrative conventions, then, Burnham eschews tidy sentimentalism – and his portrayal of growing up feels that much more authentic as a result.
Eighth Grade (2018)
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson
Running Time: 94 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for language and some sexual material.”
Produced by: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Christopher Storer, Lila Yacoub
Written and Directed by: Bo Burnham