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Film Review: Eighth Grade

3 May 19 words: Adam Wells

Bo Burnham's story of an introverted teenager trying to survive the last week of her disastrous eighth grade year before leaving to start high school is in cinemas now...

Director: Bo Burnham

Starring: Elsie Fisher, John Hamilton, Emily Robinson

Running time: 93 mins

It’s surprising, given how much the teenage experience has changed in the last fifteen or so years, just how little the genre of American high-school movies has evolved. Since the Breakfast Club emerged from their cloud of stonewashed denim, the awkward characters in these films have always felt more ‘movie uncool’ than anything resembling real life; abrasive but articulate loners who don’t even wantto be one of the popular kids. Kayla, the 13 year-old protagonist of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, feels like a true breath of fresh air, desperately striving to fit in with the cliques in her middle school, her speech littered with ‘um’s and ‘like’s, with every other sentence to come from her mouth an apology.

The film follows Kayla for the last few weeks of eighth grade before she moves on to high school, with the re-opening of a time capsule she made three years previously leading to her spiralling into fears that she not only hasn’t developed into the person she thought she’d be, but that she’s barely changed at all. Kayla doesn’t fit into any of the stock characters that exist only in films abouthigh school and not in the schools themselves, but neither is she just a blank slate. Instead, she is a walking embodiment of what she thinks the popular kids are, ending up as more of a projection of her own insecurities than anything else. In presenting the more popular students that Kayla is trying so hard to emulate, Burnham remembers one key thing about teenagers: most of them are fucking monsters.

Elsewhere, a simple pool party is scored by Anna Meredith with all the intensity of Dunkirk, edited like an honest-to-god nightmare

In portraying the ways in which Kayla is ostracised from her classmates, Eighth Grade feels up-to-date in a way that very few teenage movies manage. This is, in part, due to Burnham’s age (he was just 26 when the film was completed), but it’s likely also influenced by the way in which he rose to fame, making YouTube videos and Vines as a teenager, and gradually rising to become a bona-fide successful comedian. He understands that, due to the prevalence of social media, teenage anxiety no longer stems from direct bullying but from being ignored. Kayla’s inner turmoil doesn’t stem from any active negative treatment, but from the lack of any treatment at all. Burnham steers clear of the blanket statement of ‘phones are bad’, and instead puts forward the more nuanced point that the problem isn’t social media, but rather the people who use it to exclude others.

However, for a film that feels so up-to-date, Eighth Grade also embraces timeless themes of teenage anxiety which will ring true no matter which era you grew up in. Kayla’s awkwardness is often played for laughs, but never at her expense – instead they are shot through an empathetic, non-judgemental lens. Bo Burnham’s stand-up has always contained several thick layers of disassociated irony masking its emotional core, and here, Kayla feels like that beating heart made manifest. For such a small scale film, Burnham’s direction is dynamic and assured, each scene carefully calibrated to show Kayla’s inner turmoil; Kayla’s nerves over speaking on the phone portrayed though a sickening, unbroken shot following her as she paces back and forth, the entire room swinging around her. Elsewhere, a simple pool party is scored by Anna Meredith with all the intensity of Dunkirk, edited like an honest-to-god nightmare.

But, sprinkled throughout are reassurances that it’s okay to have these worries and insecurities; most of the adults are just as clueless as Kayla, from her father struggling to find the right way to communicate with his teenage daughter, to the dabbing headmaster, to the sex-ed videos proudly proclaiming to be ‘lit’. As a film on its own, Eighth Grade is excellent, but as a directorial debut it’s nothing short of astounding; you don’t have grown up in the last few years to recognise the universal themes it portrays, you just have to remember being thirteen.

Did you know? Barack Obama listed Eighth Grade as one of his favourite films of 2018

Eight Grade is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 9 May

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