In Director Bo Burnham I feel like I’m witnessing another Jordan Peele rise. Again, this is a filmmaker with a background in sketch comedy who, with his debut feature Eighth Grade, seems to have already made a significant contribution to film culture. Indeed, Barak Obama has named Eighth Grade one of his favourites of 2018, and I can see why.
Eighth Grade avoids many of the usual coming-of-age tropes. The film is imbued with a remarkable authenticity. This isn’t comedy on the scale of Mean Girls with surreal cut scenes and popularity wars, instead the focus is on Kayla Day’s last week in middle school and the battle to discover herself. Burnham takes joy from small triumphs against a tidal wave of “cool” conformity. He has created an excellent character in Kayla Day who isn’t insecure enough to abandon her lamer interests. Whilst watching I certainly started to remember what life was like at that age and the process of building my personality. I was also somewhat surprised to find myself relating to a 13 year old girl.
Part of this authenticity comes from Elsie Fisher’s mesmerising turn as Kayla. There was a groundedness to her performance that was refreshing to see from an actress her age. She was adept at realistically conveying the awkward interactions which provided dry humour throughout. Many of these interactions revolved around her dad, Mark Day played by Josh Hamilton. This was a character I had sympathy for, a dad that dealt with his daughter with goofy good humour despite her efforts to push him away. He provided something of a moral anchor too, and was instrumental in Kayla’s closing revelations.
Burnham initially gained a following through comedy videos on Youtube. I’m not surprised then, that the film also provides insightful commentary into social media lives. After she was voted ‘quietest in school’ Kayla’s Youtube video tips on topics such as “being yourself” or “putting yourself out there” are a reminder of the contrast between appearance and reality. Social media certainly highlights the anxiety of school but it also allows Kayla to discover who she is. It almost feels like the audience isn’t important in these videos, what’s more important is her freedom of self-expression. This is no more evident than in the final scene when she leaves a heartfelt video message to her eighteen year old self, ‘if you don’t have a boyfriend, that’s ok’, ‘if high school was bad for you, that’s ok too’.
Just like in Us, the score here is particularly good, with loud, brash techno music amplifying the horrendous nerves Kayla feels when she sets eyes on her crush in school. There are also some hugely engaging montages of Instagram surfing, working well with tracks like Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”. I can’t wait to see what Burnham does next. This could be one of the first of the Youtube generation to master cinema.