Is it a fluke that YouTuber, Comedian and now filmmaker Bo Burnham has produced a near perfectly crafted film with his directorial debut? It would be a mistake to call it an awkward teenage romp, instead what he has made is a heartbreaking, funny, sad look into the complex life of a teenage girl growing up in the modern age of cell phones, global scrutiny, and constant connection.
Eighth Grade tells the story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she navigates the last week of middle school, told at first with confidence through the Youtube videos she makes, presumably for herself (a theme that is echoed by the videos she makes for her future self and buries in time capsules), and conversely through the reality that she awkwardly navigates as the quiet, introvert in the real world. A similar duality appears in Kayla’s father, and the character development of the two throughout the film creeps up on you in such a subtle way that the climactic scene is both a sigh of relief and a joy.
Stylistically, the film follows its lead with a camera that grew up in a world of selfies and social media. The opening shot has Kayla looking directly into the lens, but it’s somehow not the jarring fourth-wall-breaking affront to cinema that it might have been before YouTube. Cinematographer Andrew Wehde allows us to look into Kayla’s world with both long wide takes and intimate moments. When she is struggling through the horror of attending a pool party for one of the popular girls, the camera follows her closely through every painful step from the front door, through the house, to her jump in, and eventual wallflower pose at the side of the pool. While fun is raining down all around her, she is utterly alone.
There is a moment in the film when Kayla is starting to think she may be alright, and just before bedtime she lays there staring into her laptop when her dad sticks his head in the door to say goodnight but before he leaves, she takes a moment to uncharacteristically open up ever so slightly to him. The visual of this moment is perfect: a wide shot of the dark bedroom with her on the extreme left of frame lit only by her laptop, and through the chasm of darkness, on the opposite end of the frame, just her Dad’s head barely inside the door, lit only by the light from the hallway. It’s a beautiful moment that illustrates not only the divide between them, but the ray-of-hope-light that tells us it may just be alright in the end.
Kayla’s Dad, wonderfully played by Josh Hamilton, Is a kind of barometer for how his daughter is doing throughout the film. The first time we really see them interact is at the dinner table where he starts out just as awkward, talking to her as if he himself is capable only of the depth of language one would expect from an eighth grader, fumbling over his words and unable to create a cogent thought. After that, he is caught spying on her at the mall and sheepishly tries to apologize and finally begs her forgiveness with twenty dollars. You start to think that his attempts at connecting with his daughter just illustrate his inability to be an adult right up to the climactic moment toward the end where Kayla, not truly knowing she really needs a Dad at that moment, asks him if he thinks she is stupid, and we see her Dad physically and emotionally go from the awkward teenage child-man to confident, loving father. It’s an award-winning performance that I hope does not get lost in the box office marketing that tends to bury our best films.
One last note about the style of Eighth Grade: when I was in film school, I was taught that you should never let the music in your film drive the narrative, that it shouldn’t be the emotional force of the film. The music in Eighth Grade has shown that it can be a significant force without risk of diminishing what the rest of the film is telling you, and the music in this film, by British composer Anna Meredith, is driving like an insane, nitrous fueled, big block, fully blown hot rod careening, barely in control, down the quarter mile. It is in your face loud, fast, yet melodic with huge swings of electronica, touches of art pop and a hint of classical music. I would say it is like The Chemical Brothers’ soundtrack from Hanna, but that might be like comparing Bruce Banner and The Hulk-the same, but not. The leitmotif for Kayla’s lust interest, Aiden (Luke Prael) is spot-on and adds a touch of hilarity to the scenes he is in.
So back to the question, is it a fluke that Burnham’s first film is crafted so well? Only time will tell, but does it really matter? It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year and I hope he makes another one soon.