While most movies seek to embellish reality through constant dramatic flourishes, sometimes slavishly building on the lineage of their chosen genre, there is a smaller subset of films that challenge the typical characteristics of the type of story they’re telling. Bo Burnham’s directotial debut, Eighth Grade, is a coming of age story. While this is one of the most frequently revisited movie templates in existence, Burnham’s freshman effort differs from the wave of John Hughes inspired, bubbly portrayals of teen archetypes. It doesn’t have the lackadaisical charm of Dazed and Confused, nor does it color events through the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia like Almost Famous. Instead we are thoroughly enveloped in an all consuming miasma of pure social anxiety, so thoroughly couched in its setting that it becomes easy to forget that the events of Kayla’s Day’s life are fiction.
Taking place in the final days of Kayla’s eighth-grade year, we watch as she struggles to navigate the treacherous waters of middle school. The film begins with our protagonist recording a motivational YouTube video, projecting the confidence she wishes she could exhibit in her daily life. She has been labeled by her peers as the “quiet kid”, largely because she doesn’t have many friends in her class. Instead she spends much of her day browsing social media, interacting with her classmates through the shallow world of Instagram likes. But as the last days of her middle school career approach, she decides to make a change.
Burnham and the cast manage to cash in on a pared down style of realist filmmaking through the excruciating accuracy with which it’s characters are depicted. The awkward and somewhat stammering vice principal, kids randomly breaking into the Floss Dance, the glibly presented school shooter drill; these moments exhibit a level of detail that captures the nuance of going to school in modern America. The presentation mirrors the performances in this respect, with intimate framing, and suffocating direction. In one sequence that depicts a traumatic experience for Kayla, Burham cashes in on his empathetic style in full. He uses the previously established thin line between the viewer and the film to fully place us in Kayla’s shoes, wielding the previously established intimacy as a weapon. This makes fo one of the most tense sequences in recent memory.
While the general aesthetic skews towards realism, when more filmic flourishes appear they pop due to this contrast. The generally sparse sound design is a good example of this, and standout moments like when Kayla’s crush is revealed are accompanied by boisterous soundtrack choices that are striking enough to produce laughs. The comedy in Eight Grade is a sneaky thing, its humor arising out of editing choices and the absurdity of various situations, as opposed to coming from dialogue.
But all of this wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the performances, which given the excruciating intimacy that the characters are afforded, had to play as believable middle schoolers. Elsie Fisher’s performance as Kayla exudes naturalism, from her overuse of the word “like” to her self doubt that becomes apparent whenever she talks with her peers. Many films slide into depicting kids as shallow, phone-obsessed zombies, a judgemental slant that reflects the writer’s disinterest in attempting to understand what contemporary kids. Burnham does the exact opposite, finding nuance in why people pour so much time into social media, and why it can be so difficult to make new friends for some. While a few of the characters do ultimately fall into molds (condescending popular kids, a doting father), even these archetypes feel closer to their real-life counterparts than most other films.
Realism doesn’t inherently bolster a film, or make it great. But in the case of Eighth Grade, this grounded style of film making is used to depict the agonizing anxiety of being a kid crushed by the overwhelming pressure to fit in. It plays sheer awkwardness for occasional laughs, and some of its insights just feel so bitingly accurate (we all knew a kid that would randomly yell “Lebron James” during an assembly). While many coming of age films don’t attempt to veil the fact that they’re written by adults, often playing as “what if” wish fulfillment, the proceedings here are exceedingly raw by comparison. Through an empathetic portrayal of adolescence, Burnham and his team have crafted a tent-pole entry in the coming of age genre. It’s simply one of the best films of the year.