Article by: Josh Bradley
Towards the end of Bo Burnham’s latest standup special, Make Happy — which is reportedly his last one for at least a while — he kneels downstage and brings up the house lights to have a frank talk with (well, “at”, but sort of “with”) his audience. He explains that his special is about performing; try as he might, all of his shows end up being about performing.
“I worried that making a show about performing would be too meta. It wouldn’t be relatable to people that aren’t performers. But what I found is that I don’t think anyone isn’t… Social media is just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, “Here, perform *everything* to each other all the time for no reason.” It’s prison. It’s horrific. It is performer and audience melded together.”
In Eighth Grade, Burnham’s spectacular auteurial debut, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is always performing. Sure, social media is social media — and Kayla begins her day by putting on makeup only to get back in bed to take a selfie for her Snapstory claiming she “just woke up like this” — but it goes beyond that. She creates advice videos for her YouTube channel no one watches, performing as the cool, confident, social person that she wishes she was. Some video topics include “How to Be Yourself”, “How to Put Yourself Out There”, and “How to Be Confident”. The content of these videos are largely presented in voiceover, cleverly narrating scenes of Kayla’s own life in real-time as she tries — and often fails — to live out her own advice.
There’s a clear disconnect between the self Kayla projects (or the personality she performs, to continue the metaphor) and her true self. Hell, she doesn’t really know what her true self is. Eighth grade is an age where “being yourself” is far easier said than done because you’re still figuring out what the hell that even means. But she tries, in endearing, heartbreaking fashion.
The greatest strength of Burnham’s script is that it understands how hard it is to be 13. How stressful it is to try so desperately to fit in, particularly when it doesn’t come easy. And how it seems endless, demonstrated in the movie by a time-capsule that sixth-grade-Kayla left behind for eighth-grade-Kayla. Kayla’s video titled “Putting Yourself Out There” plays over Kayla arriving at a pool party she’s nervous to attend because the host is a girl much further up on the popularity food chain and because Kayla was only invited by the girl’s mom out of oblivious politeness. The scene where Kayla emerges from the bathroom after changing into her swimsuit and slowly trudges to the backyard pool full of her classmates is chest-tightening.
Burnham has a great sense of cinematic language, particularly for a first-time director, effectively using slo-mo and music to heighten moments and to create contrast. The movie’s most intense scene — the content of which I won’t spoil — is exceptionally well-directed, for its framing, its lighting, and its blocking. But Burnham’s genius stroke as a director was his casting of actual-13-year-old Elsie Fisher as Kayla (aided by legendary casting director Allison Jones and Meredith Tucker).
Fisher carries the film with her sincerity, painful vulnerability, and just all-around sweetness. Equally sincere and sweet is Josh Hamilton, playing Kayla’s father, Mark. Rarely does a movie so perfectly portray the pained interactions of a moody middle-schooler and a well-meaning-but-clueless parent. The movie manages to make both understandable and relatable while also making each’s incomprehensibility of the other seem inevitable.
And it’s this gulf between the generations that usually makes movies about teenagers so damn difficult to get right, because good ones require the adult filmmakers to understand the teenage world that they’re no longer a part of. Somehow, Bo Burnham gets it, and goddamn did he make a good one. It’s a simple slice-of-life story (chronicling Kayla’s final week of the eponymous school year), but it’s marvelously constructed and perfectly executed. Eighth Grade is by far my favorite movie I’ve seen 2018, and I don’t envision it being unseated.