thu 05/12/2019

Eighth Grade review - a dazzlingly real portrait of a teenage girl | reviews, news & interviews

Eighth Grade review - a dazzlingly real portrait of a teenage girl

Eighth Grade review - a dazzlingly real portrait of a teenage girl

Comedian Bo Burnham's powerful directorial debut pushes all the awkward buttons

Just be yourselfie: Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day

“Hey guys, it’s Kayla, back with another video. So, the topic of today’s video is being yourself.” Kayla Day (the wonderful Elsie Fisher, nominated for a Golden Globe and also heard as the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me) is in her last week of eighth grade in upstate New York, compounding the horror of being 13 years old by making self-help YouTube videos in her bedroom. “As always, make sure to share and subscribe to my channel. Gucci!” she signs off chirpily, with Enya’s Orinoco Flow as surprisingly effective background music. But is anyone watching?

This directorial debut from stand-up comedian 28-year-old Bo Burnham, who was a YouTube star in his teens, brilliantly captures the insecurity, fear and loneliness of spotty adolescence refracted through the lens of social media. It’s not full of clever one-liners like Mean Girls, Lady Bird or Sex Education. Inarticulacy is more the order of the day. You don’t laugh much – Kayla’s efforts to fit in, her ghastly smiles as she wavers on the edge of things, are too painful.

Her deer-in-the-headlights appearances on YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat bear no resemblance to the reality of her school life. She’s really fun and talkative, not quiet at all, she tells her camera, but we see her trudging alone down the corridors, ignored by the cool crowd – ignored by everyone, in fact – and getting the peer-voted Most Quiet award (are American schools really that sadistic?) Obviously middle school is a nightmare. Roll on high school.

8thgradeIt’s excruciating to watch her at a birthday pool party – she’s trying to “put herself out there”, as recommended in one of her videos, because, she says hopefully, there’s not just the school you, there’s also the pool you, or the movie you, or the weekend you, all waiting for people to get to know. But popular Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), who won the Best Eyes award, only invited her because her mother, who likes Kayla’s single dad (Josh Hamilton), told her to. 

Kayla, sick with fear, observes the party from the other side of glass doors. There’s a demonic, Carrie-like feel to her terrible isolation (and you do wonder why, exactly, she has no friends). But she manages to squeeze through the doors, which malfunction, of course, and, shoulders hunched and limp lime-green swimsuit accentuating every bulge (Burnham was inspired, he says, by the swimsuit in Catherine Breillat’s film A ma Soeur – a cruel choice) she gets into the pool. And even speaks to a boy, albeit a weird one (Jake Ryan).

School itself is a surreal exercise in disconnection. Sex ed is taught through a video link. “We’re going to explore these changing bodies of yours. It’s gonna be lit!” enthuses a woman on screen, while kids masturbate, pick at their braces and sniff marker pens. An active shooter drill is met with ennui – everyone just carries on looking at their phones - though it does give Kayla a chance to crawl under the desks to talk to Aiden (Luke Prael), who she’s got a crush on. She tells him she has dirty pictures on her phone (she doesn’t). This arouses mild interest. “Do you do blow jobs?” he asks languidly. She has to Google it at home and looks appalled, then tries practising on a banana.

8thgradewitholiviaBut there’s hope in the form of super-friendly, inclusive Olivia (Emily Robinson, pictured left with Fisher as Kayla) who mentors her on a high-school visit and invites her to hang out at the mall with some friends. “I was a mess at your age, eighth grade was the worst,” says Olivia cheerfully, and, smiling nervously, Kayla manages to join a group of high-schoolers, four years older, in the food court (her dad, who's a bit creepy, lurks embarrassingly on an upper level and she has to send him away). These kids think she’s “wired differently” because, unlike them, she already had Snapchat in fifth grade.

Kayla’s relationship with her dad is a little too thin and idealised, though the dining-table scenes with her deep in her phone, him trying to hold a conversation, are funny. He is prone to saccharine pep talks and her life in general is a little too unexplained. But her performance is dazzlingly real (she went straight from real eighth grade into the part). It’s flashback time. See it with a teenager – an actual one or the one that’s still inside.

 

Her deer-in-the-headlights appearances on YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat bear no resemblance to the reality of her school life

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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