“Eighth Grade” and Adolescence as Performance

Bo Burham’s Eighth Grade is a coming-of-age story for a digital generation. But even though young Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) must mature her way through a world of Snapchat and vlogs and the other trappings of Generation Z, her struggle is still timeless. Awkwardness knows no timestamp, and anxiety existed long before YouTube. Eighth Grade is replete with superlatives, but it starts with the duo of Fisher and Burnham. Fisher’s performance is astonishing, especially for such a young actor. Burham’s writing pops with realism and his direction oozes confidence, impressive for a feature debut. Together, the two infuse the film with a bittersweet realism and a staunch statement that it is always hard to grow up, but it is always possible to make it through.

The story of Eighth Grade is remarkably simple and small: it is the last week of eighth grade for Kayla, and she has to navigate social situations that she would rather not. A terrifying pool party at the popular girl’s birthday party is particularly onerous, and Kayla’s dad always seems interested in her life, but at least she has her vlogs.

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Kayla has an advice channel where she waxes teenage philosophical about making friends, being yourself, taking risks, or whatever else is on her mind. At school (in the “real world”), she is shy and awkward, but on her vlog she beams with confidence. The vlogs also act as a sneaky structure for the film, dividing Kayla’s final week of eighth grade into distinct chapters. This technique is a minor brilliance, as it instantly encourages the spectator to adopt Kayla’s mindset and outlook. Her life isn’t a continuous stretch of time; it is a discrete series of anxiety-ridden experiences. One Instagram post, one YouTube video, one awkward IRL interaction, one day – and then the next.

On the technical side of the film, Burnham also impresses with some keen choices. The camera has a naturalistic feel, almost like a documentary. There is lots of hand-held movement, especially when Kayla is at her most awkward. The social media that is the target of Kayla’s obsession is also kept as realistic and relevant as possible. The filmmakers made multiple fake accounts on the real internet, so Kayla is always looking at Instagram proper, not some Hollywood facsimile. Similarly, her vlogs were recorded directly on a MacBook Pro, and all texting is shown in-camera and realistically (not stylized as in shows like Sherlock or House of Cards). The music is usually diegetic, though sometimes it is notably absent like during the karaoke sequence. Altogether, these choice craft a wholly realistic feel to the film, as if we’re simply following the girl around, fly-on-the-wall style.

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As fans of Burnham’s standup comedy can attest, the man is a master of tone, and Eighth Grade is no exception. Keeping in line with Kayla’s general vibe, there is a lot of awkwardness, and keeping in line with the overall concept of maturation, there’s also a lot of melancholy and bittersweetness. When she isn’t making vlogs, Kayla is pretty shy, and most interactions are difficult and scary for her, but there is some general sense that she is moving in a positive direction. In fact, the sequence leading up to her jumping into the pool could be considered a scene out of a horror movie (and a pretty good one, at that), but by the end of the party she is taking a much greater risk and singing karaoke. Another sequence where Kayla awkwardly fumbles through a sexual advance from an older boy also fits that bill – the audience I saw the film with positively squirmed through the entire scene, and despite her youth, inexperience, and ignorance, Kayla is able to stand up for herself, even though she feels sad and guilty.

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These tonal qualities color Kayla’s experiences and help generate potent thematic statements from Burnham. Eighth Grade expands upon the comedians longstanding obsession with performance, and espouses the idea that for this generation of middle schoolers, adolescence is performance. Most of Kayla’s time is either spent presenting some version of “self” to the world for consumption or spent consuming the presentations of others. In this environment, anxiety become hyper-efficient. It is all too easy to compare yourself to others when their experiences are only a click away and quantified by metrics like “Likes”, “Shares”, “Retweets”, and even “Friends”. Similarly, with a level of artifice already placed in front of you, it is easy to present someone else to the world in an effort to cultivate who you are and make others more likely to like you and respond to you. These pressures exist anyway, but social media heightens and elevates them to ubiquity.

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Still, given all anxiety and struggle and downright pain of growing up, Eighth Grade still presents a strong message that you have to take a stand and be yourself, whatever that might mean to you. Kayla does struggle with growing up in a digital age, as do countless adolescents today, countless young adults did in the 2000s, and countless others have in any generation. These challenges are universal, no matter the trappings of the time. There’s a sadness to that realization, that there really isn’t a “fix” for growing up; you just have to get through it. But, like Kayla shows us, if we’re honest with ourselves and others, patient, and a little brave from time to time, we will get through it.

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