‘Eighth Grade’ is like ‘Mean Girls’ if Lindsay Lohan didn’t discover the Plastics
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is all about not going viral. At the centre is Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an awkward 13-year-old whose main hobby involves dishing out banal advice into her webcam. Such instructions range from “be yourself” and “confidence is a choice”. She then pleads for viewers to like, subscribe and recommend to a friend. But while a minority of YouTubers rack up millions of views, Kayla’s numbers are miniscule, and if anyone’s clicking on her channel, it’s probably accidental.
The heartbreak of Eighth Grade is that Kayla is similarly ignored at school. Perhaps if she was bullied, that would afford her some attention. But she feels practically invisible. Whereas John Hughes movies of the past and John Hughes imitators of the present depict cartoonish cliques, Eighth Grade taps into the more realistic notion that everyone is absorbed in their own little world – and sometimes that doesn’t include you.
Think of it this way: Eighth Grade is Mean Girls if Lindsay Lohan didn’t discover the Plastics, she didn’t befriend goth Lizzy Caplan, and she also wasn’t smart enough for the Mathletes. It’s The Breakfast Club if Ally Sheedy started hyperventilating in the hallway and then asked her father to drive her home. Case in point, we see Kayla sitting on her own in the canteen, too self-conscious to intrude on anyone’s table, and so she jots down “get a best friend” on her to-do list. It’s the portrait of the vlogger as a deeply isolated young girl.0
Kayla’s existential crisis unfolds during the final week of eighth grade (year 9 in the UK). She’s almost in tears when her classmates vote her “Most Quiet”, and opening an old shoebox containing what she wanted to achieve by the end of middle school confirms that none of her dreams came true. It’s the only film I’ve seen, outside of Ruben Östlund’s Involuntary, to depict what it’s like to be edged out of a group conversation; she’s unsure when to interject, then realises no one’s even acknowledging her presence.
The perpetual anguish is summed up by one of Kayla’s more therapeutic YouTube videos. “I’m really nervous all the time,” she admits. “I could be doing nothing and I’m just nervous. It’s like I’m always in line for a rollercoaster, but I never get the feeling you get after you’ve been on a rollercoaster.”
“She’s almost in tears when her classmates vote her “Most Quiet”, and opening an old shoebox containing what she wanted to achieve by the end of middle school confirms that none of her dreams came true”
That Eighth Grade doesn’t aim for belly laughs is somewhat of a surprise. 27-year-old Burnham is primarily known as a hyperactive stand-up comedian whose stage presence involves aggressive lighting, loud musical accompaniment, and a general fear of silence. Elsewhere, he directed Chris Rock’s Netflix special Tambourine, played careerist comic “CJ” in The Big Sick, and amassed online fame through punchy comedy songs: “I’m bo yo”, recorded when he was 17, has 28 million views and counting.
Yet Eighth Grade prioritises authenticity over the chance to show off quick-witted quips. Kayla and her classmates “um” and “ah” their way through life, and the closest anyone comes to a Lady Bird-esque one-liner is if they’re nervously quoting a TV show. The plot, if you consider one to exist, is more redolent of an extra-slow extract from Boyhood. The film is not afraid to be boring at times, and Kayla’s naturalistic dialogue makes you care for her even more.
A similar affection is felt for Kayla’s single father. As played by Josh Hamilton, Mark is a gentle, compassionate figure, somewhat perturbed but sympathetic that his daughter will plug into her iPhone at the dinner table. Basically, Mark is the total opposite of Hamilton’s most iconic role – Grover in Kicking and Screaming – and a heartfelt speech towards the end is surely the film’s highlight.
Also up there is an equally hilarious and worrying scene involving a school shooting drill. A teacher wields a fake gun, while volunteers from the drama club play dead. It’s terrifying for us, as viewers, but the desensitised kids yawn through the entire re-enactment. What else are they supposed to do? Likewise, a kid informing a parent that “no one uses Facebook anymore” adds to the film’s timeliness.
The ability of Burnham, an adult male, to tap into the character of Elsie and her demographic isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Burnham is a former YouTube star himself with the added stress that his videos actually went viral. He had a Comedy Central special at 17, he appeared in Judd Apatow’s Funny People at 19, and eventually he retired from stand-up due to panic attacks. Still, you have to wonder: why would a 27-year-old male think he could – or should – make a film about a 13-year-old girl?
The answer, according to Burnham, is that he identifies more with the emotions of an adolescent girl than those of a grown-up man. As dubious as that sounds, the sincerity of Eighth Grade confirms it. During Sundance London, I saw Burnham speak at a 75-minute “masterclass” and at a post-screening Q&A. On both occasions, he stressed that the film is how he feels inside his gut, and that the authenticity stems from studying teen vloggers on YouTube – but only videos with around five views. “99.9 per cent of the internet is about people who aren’t being seen,” he explained. “That was more interesting to me.”
“99.9 per cent of the internet is about people who aren’t being seen. That was more interesting to me” – Bo Burnham
There is a slight contradiction here. If Burnham felt instinctively it had to be a 13-year-old girl, the extensive research wouldn’t have been necessary. But there is a genuine empathy for the characters, and the writer-director clearly connects with Kayla’s lonely pastime. His first video, uploaded when he was 16, has clocked more than 10 million views. But he did so, in 2006, as a nobody, playing piano and singing punchlines into a void.
What’s more, Eighth Grade is Burnham escaping himself. The comedy-drama is, by some distance, the greatest achievement of his career, and it’s the product of an internet icon defying expectations. Casting an earnest, believable 13-year-old girl helps the film stands out in a stale landscape. The director went on to complain that movies nowadays are too preoccupied with inserting individual lines that are readymade for Twitter. “The meme-ability of narrative comedy is dangerous,” he told the crowd. “I aspired to make a film that couldn’t be quoted.”
Burnham’s half-joking, but it’s true: take a line in isolation, and Eighth Grade is nothing to tweet about. As a whole, though, it’s a must-see film for anyone who’s ever felt uncool, anxious, or a human being.