Kayla is an eighth grade student attending Miles Grove Middle School. She often posts motivational videos on YouTube to help those with little self-esteem, though they receive little attention. Her advice is quite ironic, for she herself is quite the shy person, having few friends at school. It is to the point where she is voted “Most Quiet” by her classmates. She also has difficulties connecting with her father, who tries, and largely fails, to ween her off of social media. In spite of her emotional baggage, Kayla spends her last week as a middle school student determined to leave her comfort zone.
With his directorial debut, Bo Burnham weaves a coming-of-age story – albeit on a smaller scale than a typical example. Eighth Grade is hardly the first film to tackle such themes with George Lucas’s American Graffiti and John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club standing out as exemplary examples of the genre to this day. However, the world has changed quite a bit since those days – especially from a technological standpoint. In the 1980s, possessing a cellphone was a sign of affluence. By the 2010s, they were commonplace and far more advanced, allowing users to send text messages, post on social media, and browse the internet among other things.
What Mr. Burnham demonstrates in his narrative is the impact of this ubiquitous technology on the teen scene. Kayla has barely any friends to speak of, though it’s not for a lack of trying. As they are so engrossed with whatever is displayed on their cellphones, her classmates barely notice the world around them. While the bully of yesteryear evokes the image of a brainless ruffian who jams those weaker than themselves into lockers, contemporary ones are simply oblivious to everything. This is demonstrated when the resident popular girl Kennedy responds to Kayla’s attempts to befriend her with an apathetic “Huh?” In other words, Kayla isn’t really actively bullied as much as she is passively shunned. As such, this film makes the case that, while being on the receiving end of a bully’s physical abuse is bad, being ignored isn’t much better. Apathy has the potential to be more cutting than hatred. Indeed, many of Kayla’s attempts to stand out result in her having a panic attack – mirroring the variety of PTSD one would get after being physically struck by a bully.
Despite sounding like a fairly melancholic premise, Eighth Grade does have quite a few humorously subversive moments. One of the most memorable involves Kayla meeting her crush, Aiden. While it sounds like the premise of a typical romantic comedy, it is quickly revealed Aiden is a complete sleaze. A classmate informs her that he broke up with his last girlfriend because she wouldn’t send him any nude photographs. His good looks have afforded him nothing with such a reputation. Nonetheless, Kayla attempts to win him over by claiming she has nude photographs on her phone. This prompts Aiden to tactlessly ask if she can perform oral sex. When she looks up instructions later that day, she is mortified and gives up on Aiden right there and then. In the face of the persistent cliché that all girls want bad boys, it was refreshing to see a film in which the protagonist’s fantasies came to a dead stop once she got a reality check.
In a lot of ways, Eighth Grade is very similar to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Both films star socially awkward female protagonists trying to find their way through life. There are a number of distinctions that make it stand out from Lady Bird, however. While the title character of Lady Bird struggled to see eye-to-eye with her mother due to the latter blatantly and persistently disrespecting her, Kayla’s father does mean well. His problem is that, because he grew up in a time before social media existed, he has no idea how to connect with his daughter.
Ultimately though, a comparison between Eighth Grade and Lady Bird would be apt because they share one fatal weakness. When push comes to shove, there is no one to carry this film. Elsie Fisher did an amazingly good job portraying the kind of character she was given, but there is no getting around that the writing is flawed. Whenever one of Kayla’s videos played, I was so distracted by the sheer number of times the character said “like”, “uh”, or any other filler word that I instantly forgot her point.
I fully understand why the dialogue was crafted in such a fashion. Though not exactly a standard example, Eighth Grade takes much inspiration from the mumblecore movement that gained steam in the early 2000s. A typical Hollywood production would have dialogue without the flaws of realistic dictation – no repetition, no stuttering, and no meekness. It’s not as though the mumblecore movement was entirely without precedent, either. Acting performances throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood were highly stylized – to the point where characters invariably had a Transatlantic accent of indeterminate origin. With the rise of the American middle class following the conclusion of the Second World War, the accent gradually disappeared when the average listener realized how artificial it sounded. Mumblecore films are thus this shift taken to its logical conclusion wherein all notions of style are thrown out the window in favor of realistic dictation.
The problem with this proposition is that it has all of the affectations of acting commonly considered bad. There is a reason fictional dialogue tends to be unrealistically eloquent, after all. If one sells their film based on their dialogue, it’s very tedious weeding out all of the filler words to discern what point is trying to be made. In a film that only barely exceeds the ninety-minute mark, any kind of filler is extremely detrimental.
The other serious issue preventing the film from truly succeeding is that the narrative lacks cohesion. Eighth Grade is, in the purest sense of the term, a slice-of-life film. Kayla’s character is granted a fairly basic character arc – to become more confident in herself and make some friends. The latter is intended to be capped off by Kayla calling out Kennedy for brushing aside the gift she gave for her. Unfortunately, due to Kennedy’s non-reaction to being admonished, this scene has no satisfying impact. Moreover, when Kayla does make a friend, it’s with a boy who barely featured in the film at all. Their blossoming relationship could have made for an interesting subplot, but the audience is only shown the two endpoints. This has the unintended effect of making the film feel rushed. If a film prides itself with having few moving parts and still comes across as rushed, something has gone seriously wrong.
As strange as it may sound, I find myself likening Eighth Grade to the various MTV Unplugged live albums that were popular in the 1990s. Along with the rise of alternative rock itself, it was a rebellion against the overproduced material that comprised the 1980s pop scene. Gone were the loud, blaring electric guitars and reverbing drums and in their stead was a sound derived from the instruments themselves. However, I would argue having prolific rock musicians switch to an acoustic sound didn’t necessarily make their material any more real or intimate than what they recorded and produced in studios. It was a classic case of overcorrecting to fix a minor problem.
Eighth Grade suffers from a very similar problem as those live albums. It’s a film that doesn’t want to acknowledge it’s a work of fiction. It doesn’t matter how realistic one makes the dialogue; nothing you see before you is real. Even a historically accurate biographical feature is still, at its core, a fictional narrative inspired by true events. Because of this, Eighth Grade is left with the worst of both worlds. For that matter, my feelings towards Eighth Grade are identical to those I have for Lady Bird. Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen managed to touch upon the themes Eighth Grade covered far more effectively – whether it was general teenage awkwardness or the subject of consent. Although Eighth Grade never makes as dire of a miscalculation with its narrative as Lady Bird did, its lack of charisma still managed to be its undoing in the end.
Final Grade: 5/10