Teenage films have been quite a huge staple for me in the past decade. Whether they would be quality films (like Heathers, Stand By Me), plain fun (Mean Girls, Easy A, Say Anything etc.) or just plain silliness (Porky’s, American Pie), this reviewer has always found some enjoyment for entertainment reasons as well as nostalgic reasons.
But there are many films out there where the portrayal of teenagers have gotten a lot more artificial, a lot more fake to the point that it becomes obvious that these aren’t real characters, but caricatures. The situations and dialogue would comprise of many moments that could have only come out of committee meetings. Basically, teenage films are more about what people want to hear and see, instead of getting to the nitty-gritty of it.
Now we enter into the mind of comedian Bo Burnham, who makes his directorial debut, Eighth Grade, which was inspired by the insecurities and struggles that Burnham had gone through in terms of social anxiety. Garnering tons of critical acclaim from many festivals and winning many awards/nominations, does Eighth Grade live up to its sterling reputation?
The film follows the life of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a introverted teenage girl, during her last week of classes before graduating to high school. She’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, knowing her flaws about her social anxiety and yet she is confident enough that she produces video blogs, offering life advice. In other words, she’s a shy teenage girl who pretends to be confident.
But with the tumultuous issues of social media, sexuality, teenage angst, forced invitations to parties and many moments of interference from her dorky, devoted father (Josh Hamilton), the last week of eighth grade is going to be a long one.
This may be a bit of a delusional proclamation of this film, but it has to be said. Eighth Grade is by far one of the scariest films this reviewer has seen. And no, it is definitely not a horror film, but it is most definitely horrifying. The reason why the film is so scary and chilling is because writer/director Bo Burnham really captures and bottles the social anxiety and conveys it in the most brutally honest, yet cinematic way.
First off, the direction from Burnham is very immersive and thankfully, uncompromising in its realistic approach to its subject matter. He opts for many close-ups and medium shots and especially slow zooming (lensed by Andrew Wehde) that capture the world of turbulent adolescence, but restrains the stylistic approach so that the film centers on Kayla and her point of view on the present world, adding to the claustrophobia of the mindset of Kayla being trapped within her own shell. The lack of makeup on the actors also add to the verisimilitude of the film.
And it is within that mindset that the film is able to explore many different themes and how they inform the world and characters of the film like the borderline use of social media, the outlook on mental health, social anxiety and both sexuality and consent. Scenes that involve social media are never implemented stylishly with text overlays, but are made immediately noticeable when characters are staring at their screens as well as the sound design, which involves people typing on their electronic devices, in which the typing sounds are made intentionally incessant that add to the tumultuous feel. The use of video blogs is quite ingenious as it goes into depth in how Kayla’s mind works, like how we see the contrast in Kayla’s supposed best self and her honest self.
Also adding to the tone is the wonderfully expressive electronic score by Anne Meredith. Much like the cinematography, the score manages to encapsulate the terror, the conflicting emotions and the desperation of Kayla’s predicament so beautifully and terrifyingly well, that the film basically turns into a horror film where Kayla is the sole survivor. One of the best scenes in the film involves Kayla trying to mingle with the other partygoers in a classmate’s party that she was reluctant to go to and the musical score becomes haunting to hear and it captures the impending fear that Kayla has.
But not all scenes of such tension is generated with the musical score, but by the lack of it. Without spoilers, in one notable scene involves Kayla with an older teenager sitting together in a car and the camera is focused on Kayla for the majority of the scene, and it is noteworthy because of the tension and suspense that is generated from the fear of the unknown and considering the time the film was released in America and the time the film was written (before the social and political movements), the scene becomes even more powerful with that in mind. And as thematically heavy as the film is, Burnham thankfully never takes the easy way out with its conclusion, which is both realistically cathartic, but never sanctimonious nor sentimental.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t without mirth, which it most certainly has. But the laughs all stem from character, which is both awkward and fitting. One scene involving the use of a fruit will have some cowering and shaking in fits of laughter. What is also great about the direction of the film is how authentic the script and the storytelling approach is. All the characters interact like real people and thankfully, teenagers talk like actual teenagers, which lead to some unapologetic, rhetorical and politically incorrect dialogue. And most of it is hilarious, witty, cringing and appropriately, real.
But very little of the film would work if it weren’t for the cast, whom give all wonderfully realized and authentic performances. Josh Hamilton, who plays Kayla’s father, gives a heartfelt performance, as he manages to convey the loving and devoted side, the clueless side and the worrying side of his character in a beautifully understated way; particularly during a “campfire” scene involving a heart-to-heart talk with Kayla. Daniel Zolghadri, who plays Riley, gives a great performance that perfectly balances misguided determination and good intentions while Jake Ryan gives a goofy, yet likable and believable performance as Gabe, a young classmate of Kayla’s.
But head and shoulders above the rest is Elsie Fisher as Kayla. Fisher manages to portray her character compellingly and honestly; giving a raw, natural, vanity-free performance that never feels self-conscious and more importantly never falls into the trap of portraying a confident person pretending to be shy, but accurately a shy person pretending to be confident. Some parts of her performance reminded this reviewer of Dustin Hoffman‘s performance in The Graduate; particularly parts when both characters are swimming in a pool, feeling stuck in their circumstances and similar parts of their behavioural tics.
Overall, Eighth Grade is an incredibly effective, brilliantly empathetic, uncompromisingly honest and downright scary coming-of-age film that is a fantastic showcase for the untapped cinematic talents of writer/director Bo Burnham and actress Elsie Fisher.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Eighth Grade is in cinemas now.