Eighth Grade is excruciating, but totally worth it

by James Robins / 13 January, 2019
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Adolescence in the age of social media is skewered with comedic precision.

Eighth Grade is excruciating. The kind of film best watched in the brace position, slumped well down in the cinema seat, or cringed at between fingers. In this hilarious and pointed tale of turbulent adolescence, Bo Burnham, a stand-up comedian making a forthright directorial debut, knows precisely where the sensitive spots are – and jabs them repeatedly.

Its unassuming heroine is 13-year-old Kayla (played with astonishing frankness by Elsie Fisher). Her language is rich in the stutters of uncertain youth, her chin a pink-and-yellow mosaic of pimples carefully painted over with flaky foundation.

Preparing to leave middle school, Kayla is basically friendless. Every day, every encounter is a torment of anxiety that Burnham mines for the kind of comedy that depends on our own recognition – dredging up memories we’d prefer to forget. A pool party is, hysterically, shot like a horror film complete with dread-inducing organ music. Burnham captures with thumbscrew precision that feeling of wilting while everyone else blooms.

Kayla’s cellphone is never out of hand, feeding a steady diet of Instagram scrolling, Harry Potter memes, Disney princess quizzes and makeup tutorials. All that living vicariously can’t be good – aside from all its other faults, social media makes a damaged sense of self-esteem crippling.

And yet, to an audience of approximately zero, Kayla makes snappy videos on topics such as “Being yourself” and “Gaining confidence” – miniature lectures delivered straight to camera. She becomes talkative, self-assured, reflective; testing out a way of being in the world without the pressure of instant judgment.

For all the terror of youth, and even though these teenagers are “wired different” (as one character observes), Burnham can’t help but strike this note of optimism in Eighth Grade. If young Kayla is anything to go by, they’ll all turn out just fine.



This article was first published in the January 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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