Review: EIGHTH GRADE (2019) [Hebden Bridge Film Festival]

There are many things I would like to tell my 13 year-old self now. One of them would be to watch this film if it had been released in 2005. I was probably listening to Green Day (still do sometimes, who are we kidding?) and watching Almost Famous (2000), thinking it was the best film ever made, to be honest.

Of course a teenager in 2005 didn’t have half the amount of pressures that must teens have these days. 14 years ago I was living through the MySpace and MSN era, where you could still remain relatively anonymous and the most dramatic thing that ever happened was that someone dropped you from their ‘Top Friends’. I sometimes went bowling.

But it is in this updated minefield that we find Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a painfully shy middle-schooler in the age of Instagram and the worrying mundanity of gun drills at school. Living with her affable dad (Josh Hamilton) and socially anxious at school (she gets vote “Most Quiet” – urgh, high school is gross), Kayla retreats to the world of YouTube to attempt some crystalise some form of self-expression. Her online videos are, well they aren’t great, but to see the application of artifice in real time is to know how the effort our daily existence can be reshaped – performed, even, on a variety of platforms.

Cinema, the enduring architect of artifice, is the perfect medium for comedian Bo Burnham’s incisive but sensitive portrayal of a young person who lives a life online. Far from vacuous, superficial or shallow, an online existence has added an extra self-aware, globally conscious dimension to a generation. Burnham’s non-judgemental deftness in showing Kayla’s online life and real life so starkly in contrast from the other is masterful, so that when Kayla decides to take her own advice in “putting yourself out there” , her attempts to do just are instantly relatable.

A harsh scene at the local shopping mall sees an obnoxious discussion about the gulfs of differing experiences between teenagers in middle and high school, and descends into an experience that is all-too easy to see coming. The tired old scenario that young, impressionable youngsters can be easy prey to even their close-in-age peers. I worried that Eighth Grade was going to veer into Carrie (1976) territory, but Burnham’s decision to focus on the less supernatural horrors of growing up induces just as many shudders as a slow-motion bucket of blood. There are many funny moments though, and a blossoming friendship with Gabe (Jake Ryan) is a heartwarming. And a PSA that someone who has two of every kind of sauce for your delectable plate of chicken nuggets is worth keeping.

Isolation in formative years is probably not treated as reverently as it could be in film, I can think of examples where isolated teens turn murderous in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) or the romantic fantasy of eventual ‘popularity’ in Never Been Kissed (1999). But what if there’s no great drama in your life, except you have to go to a dreaded pool party that you’re obligated to attend, sends you spiralling? Eighth Grade will joins Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) and hopefully many more films humanely portraying early life and in its suppression with artful poignancy.

Anyway, I’m going to sign off now and scroll through Twitter to a soundtrack of Enya. Gucci!

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