'Eighth Grade': Adolescence, in close-up
“Eighth Grade” is shot with a method best described as "unflinching selfie close-up." Elsie Fisher plays Kayla Day, an eighth-grader on the cusp of graduation, then summer, then high school, then another graduation, then maybe college, a job, a family, retirement and eventually, definitely, death. Am I extrapolating too far? Maybe, but this girl’s story, so frequently filmed within inches of Fisher's nose, made me think about the idea of identity and transition, and how we’re always forging the former and never really out of the latter.
It might break Kayla’s heart a little bit to learn this perspective, the perceived pseudo-wisdom of a 40ish adult, who understands the awkwardness of hacking a machete through the jungle of personhood, but never truly will comprehend today’s world as seen by her youthful eyes. But heartbreak, it seems, is an unavoidable component of Life Itself, and she’s tough and smart. She can handle it, and manage it.
The film is a profound and complex riff on the adolescent coming-of-age comedy, and possibly the most astute take on developing youth in the internet era. Kayla is introduced to us while she records a video blog full of flimsy self-care speak; its grainy, digitized resolution hides her bumpy complexion. She wakes in the morning, watches a video of cosmetics tips on YouTube, then posts a selfie on Snapchat: “I just woke up like this,” reads her caption.
Although she’s chatty in her videos, she’s voted “most quiet” in her class. In reality, she’s reserved, seems to have few friends, and walks with shoulders slumped. In social media, she’s cheery and confident. She crushes on a classmate, Aiden (Luke Prael) - voted “best eyes” - who’s suave on Instagram, but stretches out his gum and stuffs it in a nostril during class. During a drolly comic, yet terrifying sequence in which the school executes an active-shooter drill, Kayla summons the courage to talk to him. He’s an empty vessel, a crass clod, but she doesn’t notice through the hormone filter. He says in so many words he prefers oral sex, so she goes home and hits up YouTube for tips.
“Eighth Grade” is written and directed insightfully by Bo Burnham, best known as a musical stand-up comedian who launched his career on YouTube. The irony surely isn’t lost on him. Just as the sword was forged to slay the dragon, it also is wielded to conquer the plebeians. We connect with others more frequently thanks to social media, but it also provides the opportunity to present an ideal representation of ourselves. I know how it affects someone who began using it as an adult, but what does it do to the still-developing mind?
Burnham’s key tonal ingredient is awkwardness, employed for endearing, comic effect. Kayla’s general discomfort in her own skin is the baseline. Other kids her age are just as socially underdeveloped, just louder - Burnham assembles a funny scene in which her classmates sniff markers and fiddle with the rubber bands on their braces to illustrate the perpetual itchiness of early teendom.
The adults in her life are well-meaning but, like Kayla, they try too hard. Their sincerity comes from a good place, but it’s overly rehearsed - her class watches a sex-ed video, and the narrator says of puberty, “It’s gonna be lit!” Kayla’s father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), single-parents the best that he can, utterly perplexed by his daughter’s monosyllabic sullenness. He only wants to maintain a meaningful connection, but she shuts him out. He’s earnest, but is earnesty ever not awkward at least to some degree?
There’s a mean girl in Kayla’s class, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), also voted “best eyes.” Kennedy’s mother invites Kayla to her birthday party, but Kennedy uses her best eyes to cruelly uninvite her. Kayla’s dad makes her attend anyway. The other girls coo and chatter as Kennedy opens her presents, but when she gets to Kayla’s, the twittering halts unto silence, the bird shot dead out of the sky - and yes, I use that word deliberately.
Fisher’s performance is an extraordinary waver between happiness and despair; it only takes the slightest modulation of her expression, which so often happens within close proximity of the camera, our eyes having little else to focus on. Neither she nor Burnham fear intimacy or nuance. “Eighth Grade” is an intelligently crafted work on all fronts, never flashy, always focused on its thematic intent and distinctive aesthetic. Like the recent brilliant mutations of the pubescent comedy, “Lady Bird” and “Edge of Seventeen,” the movie reiterates that growing up is hard to do - and might be harder now than ever.