Eighth Grade is the first outing from comedian turned writer/director Bo Burnham. Like his comedy, Burnham’s debut cuts through its middle-school setting with a wry edge; from the morbid absurdity of school shooter drills to the excruciatingly relatable social calamities of the film’s young protagonist Kayla (a stellar Elsie Fisher).
But Burnham isn’t here simply to mine this discomfort for laughs. The film is respectful of the real, vivid suffering underpinning the melodrama of young adulthood. As such we’re never given much time to gather perspective of events outside of Kayla’s worldview. We’re here to cringe with her, not laugh at her. The camera remains fixed to her view, occasionally dropping into slow-mo to reflect the giddy highs of a misjudged first crush or the all-encompassing fear and shame of a pool party. Meanwhile the film’s throbbing synth soundtrack fills the room with anxious noise, keeping the audience submerged in Kayla’s turbulent headspace.
It’s within this headspace that Burnham’s central concern lies: the sheer injustice that a kind, creative young girl (or anyone for that matter) should have to spend her formative years curtailing herself to the esteem of her peers; all while navigating the indignities of puberty, the modern terror of social media, the fictions of influencers, the advances of predators, and her own churning self-loathing.
Once it seems that there are no more mundane horrors left for Kayla to endure, the film grants her and its audience respite in the form of a brief, quiet chat between Kayla and her father (a layered turn from Josh Hamilton, both warm and quietly worn-out in the film’s background). This talk embodies the best qualities of Eighth Grade, and of Burnham’s wider comedic output: both its perceptive cleverness and its underlying earnestness. It outlines the film’s message of compassion in no uncertain terms, and serves as a bittersweet antidote to anyone who has suffered, or is currently suffering, the waning years of childhood.
Burnham’s debut is both a candid coming-of-age tale and a sincere parable for the mental wellbeing of younger generations. And while it may often skewer its audience with discomfort, its motive is honest, kind and, for many, necessary. This film should be shown in schools.
Eighth Grade is playing at the Glasgow Film Theatre from the 1st to the 9th of May. Tickets can be found here.
The GFT also offers a free 15-25 membership card. Information on this can be found here.
[Ronan Duff – he/him]
[Image Credit: Sony]