Helen Tope reviews Eighth Grade, showing in our cinema until Wednesday 5 June.
Steeling herself to stare down the camera lens, teenager Kayla Day is introduced to us, not in person, but on screen. The picture is imperfect, dropping in and out of focus. Kayla is talking not to us, but to another world. Making a self-help tutorial, Kayla uploads videos with advice on socialising and working through shyness. But no-one is watching.
Kayla’s online self – a composite of videos and vloggers she has seen elsewhere on YouTube – is a fabrication. Sinking into the background of middle school, just months away from graduation, Kayla is faceless and nameless. The popular kids – we recognise them immediately – bob and weave their way through the corridors of Kayla’s school. Image perfected, they are glued to their phones, scrolling and sharing images of themselves. Even in middle school – the students barely into their teens – the lines of social parity are clearly defined.
The girl to know is Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) – tall, glamorous and dressing a good five years above her age. Kayla’s crush is Aiden (Luke Prael) – a sleek-haired dude with not much to say for himself. He is the archetypal teen-film hero: cool, stylish and thoroughly unattainable.
Kayla gets an unexpected break into the middle school elite, when Kennedy’s mum mistakenly invites her to Kennedy’s birthday party. It is, to add further fuel to Kayla’s anxieties, a pool party. She slinks into the pool wearing a bright green swimsuit. Befriended by Kennedy’s quirky cousin Gabe (a fabulous Jake Ryan), it is clear to us where Kayla’s heart should be leading. But the rules of the teen film genre are simple: Kayla must suffer in order to learn.
As Kayla compounds her misery by spending hours plunged into a virtual world of edited posts and tweaked photos, she is all too aware that she does not measure up. Still floating between childhood (Disney princess videos are a favourite), and archly-knowing make-up tutorials, it’s no wonder Kayla feels adrift.
It is this awkward space between being a child and fully-fledged teen that Eighth Grade captures so perfectly. Kayla’s attempt to graft an online personality onto her own insecurities, cannot help but fail. As an introvert trying to break out of herself, Elsie Fisher as Kayla is superb. A hyper-real study of jangling nerves and the slow burn of humiliation, Fisher is extraordinary.
What is fascinating is how little of the day-to-day experience of being a teenager has changed. Adolescence, even with an iPhone, is unrelentingly awful. The feelings of inadequacy, the rehearsing and rewriting of what you should say, and how to say it – director Bo Burnham makes clear that technology has done nothing to aid communication.
The complication for this generation is that, thanks to technology, they see stumbles and silences as a fail: something to be cropped out in post-production. It’s all-or-nothing – and exacerbated by posts and feeds – we are reminded that Kayla’s year has grown up living in an augmented reality. Learning to distinguish between reality and appearance is made all the more difficult for these teens, as the technology has accompanied them through childhood. They trust it implicitly. Her classmates’ deftly-posed Instagram photos are testament to a youth who are so well-versed in what sells, they can replicate it down to the smallest detail. But far from being a harmless distraction, likes for Kayla’s peers are much more important. Approval or rejection isn’t just personal – it’s permanently logged in a data cloud. Social media isn’t just a bit of fun – it’s an extra layer of hell. Eighth Grade asks lots of questions about our dependency on screens, and the upshot is that for a world of possibility, technology risks narrowing our gaze. We craft a digital world to our liking, and there’s little room for dissent.
Where Eighth Grade finds solace is the moments of rare interaction. Kayla’s relationship with her father (a fantastic performance from Josh Hamilton), is beautifully drawn. His unstinting pride in Kayla is truly touching. He readily voices her strengths – even if she isn’t ready to hear it.
The film’s rendering of the teenage life is so accurate – it doesn’t matter whether you were a teenager 10, 20 or 30 years ago – everything about Eighth Grade still rings true. It seems there are some absolutes that everyone has to negotiate, and Bo Burnham makes a compelling argument for not glossing over or editing out the bad bits. Instead, Eighth Grade celebrates the pain and humiliation, and insists we should feel it all. The film advocates not so much stepping away from social media, but adopting an emotive distance. As Kayla says to her mystified Dad, no-one uses Facebook anymore. These platforms will inevitably be replaced by something shinier and smarter. There is no room for sentimentality in the world of tech.
The moments of realness in Kayla’s life – the talks with her Dad, a lunch date with Gabe – suggests that she may be able to find a balance. But as she makes a video for her 18-year-old self to watch after high school graduation, you can’t help but wonder if she can resist the pull of a world just a click away.
As an example of the teen film genre, Eighth Grade delivers in its attempt to reference the past and break new ground. It is as much The Breakfast Club as it is Booksmart. You will laugh, you will definitely cringe. Eighth Grade does everything it’s supposed to do – and then some.