The Dad at the steering wheel (Josh Hamilton) wearing that hopeful, slightly pathetic expression – that’s me. My own 13 year old who started his Eighth Grade (and high school since we are living in South Australia) this week shoots me that look – or the look away – most days.
Bo Burnham’s film Eighth Grade about teen Kayla’s (Elsie Fischer) last days of middle school was not really a chance for escapism. But I was grateful for the opportunity to feel less alone, knowing that Dad’s like Josh Hamilton were on the receiving end of similar hormonal and life-stage moodiness.
This is a film filled with small moments and everyday events about negotiating the passage between the private and public self – home and school and digital and real world spaces – and imbues them with big feelings.
Kayla’s smart phone and laptop offer a constant reflected glow of DMs, scrolling images and amateur videos – no set time limits in this North American home – from the moment she wakes to her last moments in bed. In this respect Eighth Grade captures with unique insight what moving through the world of peers, school and family feels like with split attention as Kayla engages in narrating and presenting a version of herself simultaneously in online social platforms.
The film is held together by Elsie Fischer’s totally tone-perfect performance. She embodies social inhibition, self doubt, contempt, and a particular kind of cringey-ness with a intriguing determination, a quality akin to steeliness: to be seen, heard, acknowledged. By focusing so squarely on a single perspective Eighth Grade achieves a pressing, almost claustrophobic, sense of interiority.
In my own home it’s China circa 1980. On the subject of adolescence there is a party line: “Oh, it’s a great time”, I repeat ad nauseum. I don’t think of it as an outright lie, more like fabulation refracted through the prism of my present circumstances (too much responsibility, not enough fun).
But following Eighth Grade even I admitted out loud that being a teenager can suck on occasion.
The film’s great wisdom is to celebrate the horror. It’s supported by a wicked soundtrack, overlaying the images with a soundscape that’s unexpected and bold to mirror Kayla’s high stakes view of each social encounter – from a crush to a friendship snub – while generally amplifying the unparalleled intensity of adolescence. It’s an empathetic film but the gentle surrealism, such as the comic contrast between the sights of ordinary suburbia and fat sounds, has a knowing charm. The word that comes to mind is fresh.