Adolescence. It’s something we all go through and our journey through it can invariably lead to momentous physical and mental changes that change who we are and shape us into who we will become. First time director Bo Burnham captures all of these radical changes in Eighth Grade in what I can only say is a sharp dramatic satire of contemporary youth culture in action.
From the moment the screen flashes to life in Eighth Grade you understand that you are watching a film that is highly original in its construction and presentation. Adopting a uniquely hand-held style of filmmaking Burnham produces a film that is bereft of dialogue and instead uses the emotional reactions of his lead character Kayla Day who is played by the incredible Elsie Fisher to tell this compelling narrative.
As a teenager who is suffering from intense issues of anxiety and loneliness, Kayla is a character who is desperate for attention and acceptance and tries to do whatever she can to find it. Fisher’s performance is so incredibly real that there are moments that you truly feel pain for Kayla at her lack of connection with anyone around her, and her struggles to find any form of additional human contact. It’s a very raw performance from such a young actress and Fisher has a real grace that shines through here. While there are utter moments of pain and suffering that Kayla has to go through, Fisher also conveys the joys and hopes of her life with an appreciation for the future and the hope that comes with it.
Along with his view of modern, Generation Z teenage life, Burnham also offers a scathing critique of social media and highlights its very negative affects on a new adolescent generation in Eighth Grade. While as a species we have never been more connected before, Eighth Grade positions that this open-world voyeurism has left us lonelier than ever and demanding in us some form of desperate connection. For Kayla this could not be more true as she spends hours glued to her phone, invested in the lives of her classmates who she would like as friends, but seemingly knows nothing about them. Coupled with modern society’s obsession for celebrity culture and the ideas of ‘whats trending’ being more important than ‘who we are’ and what we have here is a portrait of an extremely empty and shallow generation. This space that Kayla finds herself in only adds to her own negative self-image and its a really thought provoking piece of subject matter.
However for Kayla she is not entirely alone in the world and when she has the chance to visit a high school she comes upon a friendship with an older girl named Olivia and suddenly everything changes for her. In Olivia, Kayla sees the girl she wants to become: fun loving, pretty, adventurous and completely self-confident. Their interactions together are extremely heart-warming and are framed by a warm colour pallete to capture a growing sense of happiness in Kayla. But Burnham also uses this relationship to highlight the difference between these two worlds of his characters and the growth that Kayla still has to undertake before she reaches this stage of her life.
In capturing Eighth Grade, Burnham adapts a style that I would call ‘filtering’. His images, framing and colour grading reflect the filtered images we see so often on platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram, and with his strong use of hand-held footage the film has a documentary-voyeurism style to it. With the lack of dialogue in the film, the visuals play a very important part in realizing the narrative and taking the audience through Kayla’s journey here on screen.
Eighth Grade is confronting, sensitive, intelligent and very smart filmmaking and it really gets a reaction out of its audience. It’s unmissable cinema at its best and is a great debut from a powerful director and a fresh new acting talent.
Image: Sony Pictures