By Daisy Game, First Year, English
Bo Burnham's latest contribution to the coming-of-age catalogue is spotty, lumpy, bumpy – and one of the best flicks in the genre to date.
One of Eighth Grade’s most praiseworthy features has to be its gloriously authentic casting. This is a world far removed from the blushing likes of Cara Delevingne in a John Green adaptation or the floppy haired Judd Nelson’s of The Breakfast Club (1985) detention room. Children are tall and short; big and small; wonky toothed and metal-mouthed. Acne covered faces twitch down high school corridors whilst growing bodies stick awkwardly out of (and into) swimming costumes now a size too small. It’s real and raw and oh so wonderful to have characters played by actors of the corresponding age.
When discussing the selection process of Eighth Grade’s endearingly little cast members with Jimmy Kimmel, Burnham described his visit to the high school in which his directorial debut found a home. One kid was ‘eating an apple like a bell pepper’, Burnham observed with a fond admiration, whilst another answered the ‘what’s your special talent?’ question by informing the comedian that she was blessed with eczema – did that count? Burnham’s affection toward the absurdities of the teenage experience fill his high school classrooms with a reality of a wonderfully affecting nature.
Elsie Fisher is an utter revelation as withdrawn outsider Kayla – her stutters, stammers, and please-don’t-notice-me shuffles are physically uncomfortable to watch. Sat in the mall, picking at a plate of chips and perching at a table of high schoolers, Fisher’s eyes skip from place to place and face to face. Each nod is sculpted; every affirmative ‘yeah’ delivered with terrible restraint. Kayla’s desperation to be liked is intense; her belief that one wrong word – one mistimed smile – could change the outcome of her interaction with a person agonising. You ache to reach out and hoist this small person from the wreck of a 13-year-old existence.
Burnham’s extensive knowledge of social media platforms - the 28-year-old shot to fame at the age of 16 through a series of skits and songs posted on the then-very-baby YouTube - imbues his gritty coming-of-age with a further level of remarkable internet intricacy. ‘Don’t forget to like and subscribe - Gucciiiii!’ Fisher grins down the lens as she over and outs each of Kayla’s ‘life advice’ videos – a tagline of jarring familiarity.
‘The most important thing is to be yourself,’ Kayla encourages her ‘viewers’, before turning the camera off and beginning to systematically pelt her face with a small cosmetic sponge in time with the tutorial blaring from a screen balanced on the sink. Stuck to the mirror into which Kayla peers are a collection of post it notes – ‘Learn one new joke a day’; ‘Practice small talk’; ‘Be sexy’, advise the felt tip scrawls on luminous paper squares.
Burnham’s exposé of the internet’s two-faced personality – a squeaky clean façade layered over a desperate, lonely creator – is both brilliant and horrendous. In the darkness of the bedroom, Youtube DIY slime tutorials melt into dog-earing, skin-smoothing, face-slimming Instagram selfies; puppies tumbling over and into one another trip past Twitter threads tracing unsolved murders and television fan theories. This hazy mesh of internet content, in which Kayla hides, is bizarre and utterly disorientating – these inane pieces of glowing fiction which cheat today’s teens of their time and their imagination.
My dad once told me that he can’t bring himself to watch Ricky Gervais’s The Office (2001-03). ‘It’s too real,’ he shuddered. ‘It really is like that – it's hideous.’ And perhaps, for me, Eighth Grade is my Office. It is an uncomfortable, miserable, utterly stunning film. ‘That was exhausting’, I exclaimed with glee to a friend upon leaving the cinema, to which she replied: ‘Oh my god yes, that was so hard to watch.’ And it really is. It took walking down the steps and out onto the street to realise the enormous amount of tension with which I had been holding myself since Fisher’s face first appeared on screen.
Oh we love Eighth Grade. It opens on Friday and no matter how old you are (hi, I'm 35) it still brings you back to being 13. Which is simultaneously cringey and nostalgic and painful and... yeah. Trust us! 💛 https://t.co/5U79pbNVtF pic.twitter.com/lG8GETvjBm— Watershed (@wshed) 23 April 2019
We live in an impossible age. ‘Connect, connect, connect,’ chant the screens sitting in our homes, in our pockets, beside our beds at night. To be truly alone seems an impossible achievement for the teens of 2019. Burnham’s work is special, important, and essential viewing for those with any desire to understand what it is that the children of today find themselves growing up and towards. Babies in cafes prod at screens and giggle at camera filters; parties are arranged via Snapchat; relationships are conducted through likes and shares. It’s a brave new world – and we’ve been warned.
Eighth Grade is showing at Watershed until Thursday 9th May.
Featured Image courtesy of Sundance Institute
Does Eighth Grade remind you of your teenage years?