Phoebe Lease ’21 | Arts Editor
Like many in my generation, middle school is a memory I would like to keep far, far away from any part of my conscious mind. Yet, when I saw the trailer for “Eighth Grade,” an indie film quickly gaining an enthusiastic audience, I was drawn to the honesty with which director Bo Burnham deals with his young characters.
The film follows 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fischer) through her last week of junior high. She navigates her world solo, updating anyone who’s listening through her advice videos on Youtube. She spends much of her time exploring the corners of the Internet, searching for the companionship she has yet to find in her classrooms. At the end of her last week, her life takes a dramatic turn when she makes an older friend on a tour of her new high school.
Bo Burnham became famous for his Youtube channel in 2006 and signed a four year contract with Comedy Central Records soon after. Besides his work with MTV show “Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous,” “Eighth Grade” is his first foray into directing for the screen. It is a step in the opposite direction from his usual sharp, sarcastic comedy, which he talks about in an interview with Variety magazine:
“I was so tired of the satirical stuff, I was desperate to do something else ... I was trying to portray [Generation Z] and do it justice on my own behalf more than anything else. It wasn’t anthropological, it was personal.”
One of the notable decisions Burnham makes is choosing teens who are actually in middle school — not 20-or-30-something professional actors performing a caricature of adolescence. The students have acne, braces, grown out haircuts and mall wardrobes. They flip their eyelids inside out to scare each other, shout quotes from popular Vines during crowded assemblies and groan at teachers trying to pick up their lingo. There are no forced conversations written by adults of what they think kids talk about, which is one of the benefits of having a young director working with a story he understands on a personal level.
What stood out the most in the film was the push away from the usual depiction of a shy or “quirky” personality in coming-of-age movies. In most school-centered films, the protagonist is, if not popular, at least well-liked by a close-knit group. In shows like “Degrassi,” “Freaks and Geeks” or “Ned’s Declassified,” even the uncool kids have a couple of good friends to hang out with at the end of the day. However, in “Eighth Grade,” it is clear from day one that, although she is not hated, Kayla has no close friend or school acquaintance to confide in. Her relationship with her dad, while strong, is strained on the surface from a lack of communication and the angst that comes with being a pre-teen. Burnham also steers clear of the bullied victim trope; unlike other coming-of-age films in the 80’s and 90’s, no one is getting shoved into lockers or beat up after school. There is, instead, a suffocating presence of indifference from Kayla’s peers. Burnham explains, “Now, it’s much more [about] inner-personal space. I really do think the drama of most kids’ lives now is playing out inside their head.”
Despite all the humourous bits in the movie, Kayla’s isolation from her peers is stark. Her troubles start off as minor, the awkward moments endearing, but become more serious and hard to stomach as time goes on. It’s her cheerful optimism, even when standing alone, that makes her such a likeable and memorable character.
This new generation deserves media that truly portrays their coming of age stories, and it looks like Bo Burnham has delivered it.
“Eighth Grade” is playing at Amherst Cinema. For showtimes, visit https://amherstcinema.org/.