Movie Review : Eighth Grade (2018)
In movies, teenagers are usually split into stereotypical groups. The most common being jocks and nerds, since every school has athletically-inclined students and less athletic, intellectual kids who’d rather play Dungeons & Dragons than football. But what you don’t see in movies is kids who don’t belong to these groups. Who are not especially athletic and that don’t have outstanding grades. Teenagers that have no idea of who they are and that don’t do well in their environment because of that. Comedian Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade is a movie about that.
It’s a quite uncomfortable, but profound experience that might dig up some serious skeletons from your personal graveyard. You have been warned.
Eighth Grade features Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a quiet 14 year-old struggling to finish what has been a disastrous school year. She’s invited to her classmate Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere)’s birthday by the latter’s mother in the school’s parking lot even if they clearly aren’t friends. Sick of being on her own, Kayla accepts in an attempt to “put herself out there” and bond with people her age. Going in unsure and nervous, she doesn’t make a lasting impression and turns to social media and internet to trump solitude. That is until her class is invited to shadow high school students for a day and Kayla makes new friends…and new experiences.
The protagonist of Eighth Grade Kayla is stuck in a transitional age, where she doesn’t recognize the kid she once was and can’t yet quite understand the woman she’s bound to become. She’s trapped with this uncomfortable in-between that she needs to steer to a destination she doesn’t know how to get to. It brilliantly illustrates the challenges and inherent loneliness of being a teenager: every decision you take has life or death importance to you, because you’ve never had to make decisions for yourself before and you’ll be left facing consequences alone. It’s terrifying when you’re experiencing it for the first time.
This is perhaps best illustrated through Kayla’s YouTube videos and relationship through social media at large. She makes self-help videos that get between zero and ten views each. Bo Burnham uses them as a narrative device for Kayla to plan the next step of her evolution. She gives herself advice, which she’ll put into practice in the following scenes. It’s heartbreaking, but it also illustrates the therapeutic value of having a platform to express yourself. Same goes for her Instagram account, which she uses to mediate her relationship to her classmates. It never feels like it’s preventing her to do somewhat she would otherwise. It’s a rampart against loneliness like any other.
I was profoundly disturbed by Eighth Grade even if there isn’t anything profoundly disturbing happening in the movie per se. There are challenges, but not tragedies. It really is the experience of not being comfortable with oneself and suffering from one’s own social anxiety that messed me up. It feels way too real. Eighth Grade is definitely a challenging movie, but it’s also a luminous and rewarding one. Bo Burnham writes from a place of love and empathy, which permeates through the trials and tribulations of his protagonist. Eighth Grade is simple and powerful. It’ll make you reconnect with your inner teenager in ways you wouldn’t expect.