The coming-of-age drama Eighth Grade reminds us of cinema’s potential to enhance our lives with perspective-widening stories, writes critic Luke Buckmaster.
It would be foolish of me to describe director Bo Burnham’s debut feature film Eighth Grade as an authentic portrait of a young woman wading through the choppy waters of adolescence. It would be foolish because – and this may come as a shock to my readers – I am not and never have been a 13-year-old girl. Therefore one might say my first-hand experience in this field is somewhat limited. One could also say the same thing about Burnham, who is a 29-year-old male.
The film certainly feels authentic, led by a touching and shockingly good performance by Elsie Fisher – shocking in that she’s cringeworthy in ways that feel squeamishly genuine. Fisher is how Burnham’s finely made and naturalistic film is transformed from an experience tied to a specific kind of person into a work evoking universal sentiment.She seems as much an author of it as Burnam – a great compliment to bestow upon any actor, particularly one as young as her (she was 14 at the time of filming).
Following the protagonist through her final days in middle school, the director homes in on Kayla’s angsty character in ways sometimes ambiguous and sometimes obvious. When she sits down in the food court with older kids she hopes to impress, it’s ambiguous: we know Kayla is uncomfortable but are left guessing as to the precise thoughts swimming around her head. When she attends a pool party it’s obvious, given she is wearing a one piece bathing suit while every other girl is in a bikini – an unsubtle visual reminder of her feelings of isolation.
Eighth Grade is a very good, very fine, very smart and intuitive film, constructed in an organic-feeling style that encourages one to get lost in its fabric. I’m particularly fond of how Burnham challenges the dichotomy between extrovert and introvert, suggesting the difference between these supposed opposites may be situational rather than some bedrock aspect of a person’s psyche. The film is bookended by laptop-recorded footage of Kayla speaking direct-to-cam for her vlogging audience. She offers random thoughts and life advice, much of which she does not adhere to herself, including the importance of “being yourself” and not caring “about what other people think about you.”
This chatty exhibitionist is a stark contrast to the timid and reserved girl clamming up in the food court. The director not only challenges the common acceptance of a definite divide between extrovert and introvert, but reflects the confusing feeling often experienced in adolescence: of being intensely uncertain when to speak one’s mind and when to keep quiet. This very human question is at the centre of the film, bestowing dignity on the essential adolescent experience of exploring these different sides of your personality as they evolve.
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Observing different walks of life in perspective-widening films like Eighth Grade is one of the joys of cinema. In the real world we often see evidence of things that segmentalise us – from postcodes to football teams to demographic-specific items in the supermarket. You belong to this group; you buy this kind of product; you move in these circles. Films can break those barriers down and encourage a broadening of our understanding of human experience.
That is why I felt heavy-hearted last year when I read that Brie Larson, taking umbrage at the critical response to the candy-coloured family film A Wrinkle in Time, stated (in an otherwise valuable call for greater diversity among critics) that it wasn’t intended for white males to watch – “I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about A Wrinkle in Time. It wasn’t made for him,” she said. This is antithetical to what many of us consider some of the most valuable aspects of cinema. Why should people only go and see stories that reflect their own experiences? Shouldn’t it be the other way around: that we should most often go to see films that show us different kinds of people and different ways of living?
Eighth Grade was not written and directed by an artist with direct experience of being 13-year-old girl. And yet, partly because of Fisher’s performance and the collaborative nature of filmmaking more generally, it hardly seems to matter. I am struggling to recall another recent portrait of contemporary American adolescence as convincing and as memorable. I’m a male critic, but I didn’t get the sense that this film wasn’t meant for me. It felt like it was meant for everybody.