VOD film review: Eighth Grade
James R | On 29, Dec 2019
Director: Bo Burnham
Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton
Like and subscribe. Three words that all young people know with a shuddering familiarity and possibly an anxious longing. That anxiety is what Eighth Grade captures on screen with an almost gnawingly awkward accuracy.
The film follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a teenager who regularly posts videos for a tiny online audience. In them, she reminds her voters that what matters is on the inside, that being confident in yourself is more important than what other people think. But the film’s knowing insight is that Kayla isn’t confident at all, and Bo Burnham digs into the irony of her posting such messages so that she can get likes and subscribes herself, reinforcing her own confidence.
Social media has dragged that adolescent angst into a glaring digital spotlight, making us more vulnerable and accessible than ever, while simultaneously making it easier than ever to present an idealised version of ourselves to the rest of the world. Inadequacy, FOMO and envy plague everyone, even though they’d never admit it to anyone. Not on the internet, anyway.
Burnham, whose career as a comic began on YouTube, understands those blend of pressures all too well, and his script is stuffed with nuance and empathy in an age where neither are encouraged. Elsie Fisher, also a YouTube veteran, brings a raw and open honesty to Kayla, communicating a wealth of frustration, disappointment and isolation – and, when she finds herself invited to lunch by older kids following a school orientation, a wide-eyes hope and amazement at the people who are not only cool but think she’s cool too.
Eighth Grade’s only weakness is that we don’t get more of that side of Kayla; she’s mostly seen by us on her own or with her dad, rather than with any of her peers or classmates. However, the script’s relatively narrow focus, which relegates many other social media figures to the label of background caricature, makes up for it with a focus on the bond between Kayla and her dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton).
Hamilton is brilliant, delivering a generous supporting role that makes him as rounded a character as Kayla is. Their scenes together are fantastic, allowing for empathy on both sides of the dinner table, from her, trying to work out exactly who she is in order to be herself, to him, being as encouraging as a single dad can be and even remembering that she doesn’t like bananas during one amusingly embarrassingly encounter.
The movie comes to tear-inducing life during one fireside conversation that sees them both be as open with each other as Kayla pretends to be in her online videos. And, as we meet the geeky Gabe (Jake Ryan), who goes on the most self-consciously nervous first date with Kayla in recent cinema history, there’s hope, too, that this young generation can learn to be themselves, and be valued as themseves, after all. Directed with a delicate style, naturalistic tone and an intimacy that suggests a filmmaker far beyond his years, this is a promising, moving directorial debut from an excitingly frank new storytelling voice. If you don’t already, you’ll be liking and subscribing to him in no time.