When we discuss the coming-of-age style of storytelling, a dominant preconception of what that entails enters our minds: typically, a vision of young adults — perhaps 18 to 21 years old — as they cross the threshold of adolescence into the larger world beyond the formulaic suburbia. Dwindling friendships, sporadic emotions and an intense pressure from the unknown are common components these stories use to empathize with us viewers, who have experienced some or all of these emotions at one point. In the American education system, the 18-21 range is prime real estate for the subgenre, as the shift from secondary to higher education is inducive to these anxieties.
Oftentimes, this works out fantastically, and the final product is a hearty mix of endearing, cathartic and comedic stories: “Superbad,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Boyz n the Hood” are critical and commercial staples of human maturation in film. There is nothing idyllic to be found between their throes of depression, estrangement, socioeconomic disadvantage and so on. The common thread remains those aforementioned pieces of the subgeneric puzzle, elements of the human complex that supersede any social ideals of “cool” or “popular.” And yet, this yearning to be accepted plagues the characters.
Stand-up comedian and former YouTube sensation Bo Burnham has just experienced the limited release of his debut feature film, “Eighth Grade.” Following immense acclaim out of Sundance, the film traces the final week of the eighth grade for 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she navigates a transition to high school among the choking stressors of crushes, making fulfilling friendships and projecting a tailored image across social media platforms.
Already, the film is innovating on the subgenre, not simply because it casts actors true-to-age, but it begins to pave the trail in the upcoming social generation of omnipresent smartphones and image obsession instilled in teen and preteen minds. One of my most pleasing observations was Burnham’s ease of transitioning his awareness of the bubble established by social media, impartially presenting its ups and downs on the human psyche.
As such, Kayla runs a consistent vlog detailing her perceptions, advice and concerns of a changing world. Self-referentially, she and the film itself tackle fragmentation, an ever-growing concern among sociologists in which our persona is divided into different images depending on our interactions with the world. Everyone experiences this, and you may notice a change in cadence between the “you” in reality and the “you” on Instagram or Snapchat.
This communication pattern is extremely interesting, but just as damning. Kayla loathes her perception as the quietest student, a shy introvert with little to say. In the opening monologue, her jovial and kinetic inflections argue the exact opposite, as she cites students’ unwillingness to know the “real” Kayla as the main undoing of her social extroversion. Despite this, awkwardness consumes a decent 95 percent of young teenagers, and Kayla finds herself tripping up on spoken word, socializing and juggling which Snapchat filter to use for the hundredth selfie.
I think this segues perfectly into my favorite aspect of the movie: Burnham wastes no time destroying a glamorized idea of acting or fluidity in the script. Characters — especially Kayla — fumble over their own words, and an audible frustration in finding the right phrasing and display of emotions is heard. This form of down-to-earth characterization is crucial to the film, meeting the criteria of the subgenre while going further and humanizing these eighth graders’ flaws as opposed to script efficiency. At the same time, it yields that efficiency with ironic pleasure, only serving a more gravitating appeal to Kayla’s struggle, because no conversation in reality is without its stutters and filler words.
It creates a reward system just as well. When Kayla finds a person who makes her feel comfortable in her own skin, the nervous shell dispels, and her happiness and outgoing positivity bloom to everyone’s delight. It’s a captivating process to watch Elsie Fisher’s performance slide from total introversion to conformity in order to identify with others to a full freedom in personal expression. Sometimes it fails spectacularly and cripples her self-esteem, but in the few moments it works, a wholesome happiness is derived from watching this character reach conclusions we wish we’d made at that age.
Burnham crafts a world that is just as concerned with Kayla’s well-being as it is with the callousness of others. Kids can be cruel, and indifference is one of the harshest realities of them all. As Kayla makes valiant efforts to befriend classmates and establish meaningful relationships, she is hit by the brick wall of the smartphone: tapping thumbs and vacant gazes of fellow students who care little for the world beyond their screen. It’s a gross hyperbole, yes, but its existence simply can’t be ignored. Why does Kayla end her vlog entries with the “OK” gesture and singsong phrase “gucci?” Why does she vie for the perfect selfie angle? Why does she spend inordinate amounts of time researching makeup tutorials on YouTube? The only word that takes the forefront is “acceptance.”
"Elsie Fisher’s lovable performance is deserving of immense recognition, with an expansive range of emotion, subtle facial cues, verbal imperfections and a genuine effort to fulfill Kayla’s wishes."
It’s hardly a subtle theme in the film, but Burnham’s affinity for social media and necessity for entertainment qualifies his portrayal of an entire generation of people who are never disconnected from celebrity fascination, grandiose materialism, social hierarchy and so on and so forth. You can’t help but feel annoyed when Kayla sits at dinner on her phone, headphones plugged in, completely detached from her father’s attempts at personal conversation. Like me, you can hate it all you want, but Burnham doesn’t shy away from the inevitability of assimilation between pop culture and everyday life.
It’s an exasperating truth, but only helps to build the happiness when Kayla makes efforts to reject the social norms in order to discover herself more thoroughly. It perplexes other students, watching this bizarre girl have the nerve to talk to them in person, yet fully realizes the importance of acceptance as a concept of one’s inner self instead of conforming to the pleasure of others — a message that rings true for any age.
The camerawork was nothing exceptional, and cinematography was almost always a mundane, matter-of-fact presentation. I am so thankful for this. Were this film a hyper-stylized, Refn-esque neon drenching of American adolescence, it would have lost a great deal of authenticity. A major element of the movie is its allure to slice-of-life tales that can resonate with many of its viewers: I know for a fact my school did not have lighting crews and dolly tracks running up and down its halls.
The highlights of the film are, by far, its score and acting. Musical selections toy with fusion: Heart-stopping, anxiety-inducing percussion serves as a backdrop to lighter, pleasing melodies with electronic color and vivacity. There are certainly catchy songs in the soundtrack, and their claustrophobic noise works euphonically to convey both the weight of stress on Kayla’s life as well as the joys.
Acting is easily the star feature of this film. Elsie Fisher’s lovable performance is deserving of immense recognition, with an expansive range of emotion, subtle facial cues, verbal imperfections and a genuine effort to fulfill Kayla’s wishes. The amalgam of these pieces craft a complex and versatile character, wise beyond her years without losing the believability of carrying the naivete only a 13-year-old could have. A strong supporting cast and grounded script leave a lauded first impression.
“Eighth Grade” is a stellar directorial debut from Burnham, whose own long-term exposure to social media and public perception only boost the world from a simple movie setting to a true mirroring of our own. A fantastic cast and emotional script explore the highs and lows of introspective change, while offering comedic, albeit scary commentaries on the current state of social affairs in the teenage generation between dabs, filters and being “lit.”
Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect film, but in fitting with the moral of Kayla’s tale, it refuses to change what it is for any one person’s approval. If that doesn’t signify a coming-of-age, I don’t know what will.
Final Grade: B+
Christian Memmo is a film columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To check out more of his work, click here.