Review: Eighth Grade

19 December 2018

Near the beginning of Eighth Grade, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) and her peers, preparing to graduate and leave for high school, receive time capsules they made at the beginning of their tenure of middle school. Addressed ‘TO THE COOLEST GIRL IN THE WORLD’ in glittery pink letters, Kayla’s contains pictures of celebrities, ticket stubs, and a SpongeBob USB with a video full of wide-eyed optimism for the years ahead. Kayla then goes home to her other time capsule, her YouTube channel, full of three-minute-long advice columns about “putting – yourself – out there” (dashes symbolising real pauses as Kayla shifts her hands across the screen). Her life is framed in her perfect ideal of a young, confident person, shaped after the lives of those she’s seen on screen. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade operates as a different sort of time capsule. It takes the cringeworthy, the devastating, and the dizzying and doesn’t polish them. It simply presents their uncomfortable, brutal, visceral essence. In doing so, it becomes an authentic illustration with a real, honest beating heart.

Each element of this film is carefully and lovingly curated in order to best show Kayla’s world, becoming a immersive experience of the awkwardness of early puberty. Burnham’s screenplay perfectly captures the balance between the giddiness of adolescence and the overwhelming omnipresence of anxiety. It makes you cringe, laugh and cry, but leaves a soft, warm feeling bubbling in your chest that stays with you. The camerawork beautifully captures Kayla’s world, full of light and colour, and the shots in this film are not positioned from above but fully in the world it is documenting. Anna Meredith’s score submerges you fully into Kayla’s world, ranging from airy joy to the percussive, thundering heartbeat of a panic attack.

Elsie Fisher’s portrayal of Kayla is truly and totally real as she navigates the fine line between vulnerability and openness. Her delivery of Kayla’s YouTube video soliloquies are captivating to watch in their dual awkwardness and confidence, and you can see the words she wants to say but doesn’t know how run through her mind as she speaks. The scenes between Kayla and her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) are the best exemplifier of the authenticity that drives Eighth Grade and makes it such a compelling film.

Most importantly, Eighth Grade does not judge its protagonist and her peers. It accepts that YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter are conditions of contemporary existence. There’s no fake ‘Instaface’ or ‘Tweeter’ – the platforms are real in their presence and their pressures. Kayla, like all of us who grew up in and are  navigating the digital age, is trying to both find and achieve an ideal in the platforms available to us. The webcam’s grainy lens and the Snapchat filters blurring of Kayla’s acne are not the villains of the piece – they are shown simply as a factor of existence, another thing to navigate in the already chaotic world of adolescence.

Eighth Grade doesn’t attempt to moralise the internet and doesn’t run a commentary on the relationship between social media and young people – that is where its strength lies. It honestly but compassionately documents Kayla’s attempts to find agency within the world and the platforms she’s given, to take control in a world where control seems so out of reach.

Eighth Grade is in cinemas from January 3.

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