Grounded in authenticity to a fault, Eighth Grade captures the torturous isolation and anxiety of early teen life on the social fringes, but is held back by a slack narrative and dull pace.
Most of us in the arts remember middle and high school as a torrent of awkward social exchanges mitigated only by the unwelcome, but not unfamiliar feeling of crippling anxiety. So much the worse for us who didn’t have cell phones or the internet to escape into. So, when viewing Bo Burnham’s debut film, Eighth Grade, it’s easy to slip back under the flood of memories that spill forth from whatever locked-away chasm of the mind previously held them, and submerge in the fresh reminder of shame and insecurity.
In this way, Burnham and his star, Elsie Fisher, are effective stewards for us one-time pariahs and wallflowers, ushering us down a film reel full of cringe-inducing experiences suffered by protagonist Kayla Day. Fisher’s performance as Kayla is enough to tug at the strings of sympathy or empathy, indeed enough to positively shred them, depending on who you are. The acting is so effective as to not seem like acting at all. Kayla’s YouTube videos, façade-heavy portrayals of who she’d like to be, are sympathetic and ring completely true. Burnham has pegged the language in an uncanny way. Kayla talks just like the thirteen-year-old sister of a friend of mine. Burnham has achieved a companion piece to teenage life today, effectively intertwining technology with good-old-fashioned angst to modernize the teenage experience.
True to his comedic roots, Burnham also finds plenty of blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments of comedy. Like seasoning, they pepper certain scenes without claiming the spotlight, always happening around Kayla rather than to her. Kayla remains bubbled in her own isolation in plain sight, but the bustling world of her school continues on around her, oblivious. These only add to the authenticity of the setting Burnham seems to have captured rather than crafted.
But too much realism can be a double-edged sword. One of the most valid criticisms of the film is that nothing much really happens. While this doesn’t always have to be a deal-breaker, usually other films thin on plot make up for it with some other attention-holding aspects: performance, cinematography, music, characters. Eighth Grade isn’t particularly strong in any of these categories but performance, and the understated nature of it means it’s not the type of performance to keep people thinking about long after they’ve finished watching. The film is so understated and internalized that there’s almost nothing happening onscreen at all, which, while truthful to reality, doesn’t make for particularly enthralling viewing.
Compounding the suffering is the pace of the film, if it can be called that. It moves along so sluggishly, spattered with shots of Kayla on her phone, scrolling this social media or that. Though the film clocks in at a modest 94 minutes, it seems to take two and a half hours to complete. This could be a director’s choice that Burnham made to further illustrate the difficult burdens living life as Kayla Day, but that would be malicious, and somehow I can’t see subjecting the audience to boredom being a conscious creative decision on Burnham’s part.
Eighth Grade aimed for a truthful representation of isolation and insecurity in the depths of a newly teenage vessel. It succeeded for better and worse. Completely authentic, the film fails to hold its viewers’ interest for the duration of its runtime. A silent teen’s silent struggles don’t make for good visual storytelling. Though the motives should be commended, it can’t exactly be called compelling.