Comedian, and now writer/director Bo Burnham has released his first feature Eighth Grade, starring Elsie Fisher as awkward, in-between Kayla Day.
Kayla is trying like almost anyone her age to be cool and fit in in the fast paced, technology-laden world of teens today. We watch, many times, as Kayla creates videos for her YouTube channel: advice on things like being yourself and fitting in. These videos highlight the ways in which Kayla makes an effort to find these things in life and within herself.
Throughout, we are privy to awkward conversations with Dad (Josh Hamilton), the muted sharp glares to and from ‘popular’ girl Kennedy and a handful of awesomely socially tragic clashes with equally awkward and removed teen boys. Everyone in their own world amid a sea of extremely thick atmosphere that feels all too familiar, compressed and leaves you gasping.
A note here on the score: It comes far too often, too loud. The chosen songs sound hastily made and are in such jarring contrast with the film itself, it further warps whatever is left to be gleaned from on screen. There is no matching of emotion or intention, merely blaring beats better used elsewhere.
The direction style doesn’t favor glamour shots, opting instead for a well lived-in feel. The costumes and scenery are muted, everyday colorful: very grounded in reality, glittered with iPhones and punctuated by so many uhms and ahs.
Burnham clearly has an adept feel for the material, but this is also his downfall. The strangest bit comes during an active shooter drill (yes, of course) followed almost immediately by an earthquake preparedness drill. This evasion tactic practice leads to some reaching attempts at innocent flirting tinged with a hint of the salacious, terrifying trouble it could bring. On many occasions we are set up with something that pushes beyond the grainy film of the movie into interesting and gripping territory, only for it to be deflated moments after; this uneven rise and fall gives the movie a meandering feel that never quite reaches the apex of understanding it needs to drive home just what is important here.
To say this movie has merit is to say a lot, outside of style and deadly accurate tone, the structure crumbles in on itself and the message, if there is one, is lost. Moments of reflection and success are muddled through and perhaps that is the point, however, this makes for a trying and very painful watch that doesn’t seem to know which audience it wants to pull in.
Is this meant to be a burdened nostalgia cringefest for those that have grown through the struggles of young adulthood? Or is there a message amid the noise for the ones coming up in the now? This film is rated ‘R’, so the latter seems a stretch at best. Presenting the dredge of middle school without resolve is certainly bold, but this film stumbles more than it strides.
If the idea of a mostly accurate depiction of the slow ache of growing pains sounds intriguing, give this one a watch when it comes to DVD or the streaming service of your choice.
A24, highly regarded production company, and noted comedian Bo Burnham have taken us to school, and it isn’t pretty.