Eighth Grade: a charming, knowing portrait of teenage embarrassment

Bo Burnham’s debut film captures adolescence: from every marginal cringing embarrassment to each infinitesimal joy.

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When David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin made The Social Network, they wore with pride the aversion to Facebook that gave that movie its sceptical and vindictive kick. But when the 28-year-old writer-director Bo Burnham addresses the corrosive effects of the internet on adolescent self-esteem in Eighth Grade, he draws from his own experience. At 16, Burnham became a YouTube star; at 17 he was a stand-up. His funniest show (what.) boasted an air of self-awareness that was borderline chilling. Eighth Grade is awfully knowing, too, but it has an abundance of one quality absent from Burnham’s smart aleck stage persona: charm.

Most of that can be attributed to the extraordinary Elsie Fisher, who plays Kayla Day, a timid 13-year-old New Yorker poised to make the leap to high school. She posts faltering motivational monologues, her YouTube audience falling some way short of Burnham’s millions. (On a good day, she might get one or two views.) When she records her latest vlog, there’s a clear distinction between the video she’s making, where the image is static, and the film we’re watching, in which the camera pulls back slowly. That dissonance sets the tone for a movie that dramatises Kayla’s heightened, skittish perspective. Reality can only ever be provisional for this girl, who renders herself immaculate in the morning before climbing back into bed for a selfie with the caption: “Just woke up like this.” Perhaps hers is a logical response to a world where adults talk like kids (“This is gonna be lit!”) and kids are expected to take drills for high-school shootings in their stride.

Anna Meredith’s score, all blaring beeps and buzzes, underlines the divide between Kayla’s internal and external selves. A shot of the classroom is accompanied by the normal ambient bustle of school life until Kayla spots the dreamy boy who was voted “Best Eyes”, and an electronic cacophony kicks in. She took the prize for “Most Quiet”, though her thoughts are anything but, and the music roils and rages on her behalf. Even a soothing track such as Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” becomes an aria of anxiety when set against a montage of Buzzfeed quizzes, Jimmy Kimmel clips and Instagram posts.

Kayla lives with her father (Josh Hamilton). He is concerned about her sense of isolation while remaining her biggest fan, even if he doesn’t quite notice that she squirms whenever he calls her “cool” and “special” – each compliment a reminder that he is alone in those opinions.

The picture is short on incident but dense with observational detail and reversals of tone. That school shooting drill is staged with a deadpan dryness, whereas a classmate’s pool party, with its Nerf guns and bare flesh, has the debauched horror of a coke-and-Uzis orgy in Scarface. While she isn’t quite as unwelcome a guest at the party as Maleficent, she has her own inverted Sleeping Beauty moment. Pricking her finger on a cracked mobile phone screen, she doesn’t fall into a hundred-year slumber but instead wakes up, fighting back against her shyness and fear. She has a stab at karaoke, and takes up an older girl’s invitation to join her at the mall. There is even a glimmer of romance with a companion thoughtful enough to have provided both chicken nuggets and a range of sauce sachets set out like a wine selection.

It is to the picture’s credit that none of these events is shown to be a turning point or salvation. Burnham honours the depth of Kayla’s loneliness but also how routine and unremarkable it is. Once or twice, he forces an effect: a scene in which Kayla’s dad walks in on her while she is using a banana to practice foreplay belongs to an inferior movie, as does an unconvincing confrontation with the popular girl. But Eighth Grade excels in capturing overlooked glances and unseen gestures – Kayla pulling a goofy face at exactly the moment that the boy who was meant to see it turns away, or giving a thumbs-up sign at the front of a group photo in which she had hoped only to stay hidden. The movie catches every marginal cringing embarrassment and each infinitesimal joy. Very little happens in it, and yet everything does. 

“Eighth Grade” is released on 26 April

Eighth Grade (15)
dir: Bo Burnham

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special