Film Critic Harlan Jacobson Enjoys "Eighth Grade"

Jul 21, 2018

"Eighth Grade" is worth a look
Credit Harlan Jacobson for WBGO

There have been plenty of movies about High School. There’s only one about 8th Grade. I dropped in on comedian turned writer-director Bo Burnham’s 8th Grade, which brings it all up to date.

I don’t know about you, but I was a little surprised by how on the surface my own 8th grade still is by watching Bo Burnham’s first film which updates the experience from transistor radios of my era to the ubiquitous cell phone and social media of 13-year-old Kayla at the Miles Grove Middle school somewhere in suburban NY.

When we meet Kayla, played by then 14-year-old Elsie Fisher, she had done voiceover of Agnes in Despicable Me, it’s in selfie mode, doing another in her Being Yourself series of self-help videos she’s posting on You Tube.

Her face fills the screen, it’s round, peppered with acne, framed by lank blonde hair, and you scan it for where the bones are of the woman she might become: she’s a lot nice, she’s unsure of herself, of course, she’s trying to buck up the confidence of others. Which is really just a way of bucking up her own, as she ends the sequence with her own signature style, “Gucci” after a 1000 thank-yous for watching not only her video but “her channel” direct from her makeshift bedspread studio in her bedroom. There, Kayla dutifully dispenses digital age mantras to others. It’s an act of reaching out made possible by the internet for what used to be private journal entries.

Now 28, Burnham’s breakthrough song at 16, My Whole Family… Thinks I’m Gay on early You Tube, made him a high school phenom and led to standup gigs, TV and film acting. Burnham captures the goofiness of junior high, the constant testing of the social waters, how much Kayla is willing to tolerate, where she draws the line on what’s true, what she’d like to be true, and what’s not happening. The “Likes,” Ya knows” and “Umms” are still part of teenage building blocks of declarative sentences that really shouldn’t but often end in the insecure hell of question marRKKS?

And Burnham nails the doofus cadence of principal-and-teacher-speak during assembly as they drone through the Class of 17’s Superlatives List, announcing Kayla is voted as “The Most Quiet.” She wrinkles her nose, not true. It’s anything but quiet inside her head.

Elsie Fisher as Kayla in "Eighth Grade"
Credit Harlan Jacobson for WBGO

There are some stock characters, why wouldn’t there be, the geeky boy, the too cool for school boy who stares off somewhere over everyone’s shoulder, not just Kayla’s, the high school boy who tries to coax her out of her blouse in the back seat of his car in a future bid, I suppose, for his MeToo mugshot and the Cruella DeRigeur awful mean girl named Kennedy, whose mom invites Kayla to her McMansion poolside birthday party.

It’s one of the film’s two key scenes, and to Kayla it’s like being asked to cheerlead naked at halftime at the Super Bowl. You’re skeptical of this girl as the film begins—go on seduce me. You’ve been there before with a thousand boys and more recently girls. With Dawn Wiener (Heather Mattarazzo) in Todd Solondz’ ultra-dark Welcome to the Dollhouse in 1995. Very differently with beauty queen Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) in Little Miss Sunshine in 2006, though her dad Richard Hoover, played by Greg Kinnear, comes from the same awkward clay as Kayla’s dad, Mark, played by Josh Hamilton, who’s played edgier characters in Manchester By the Sea, Frances Ha and on TV in Madame Secretary. Kayla is recognizably a cousin of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, so close in fact Burnham dubbed his own film Baby Bird, as if it’s a prequel.

It’s distributed by A24, the same team behind Lady Bird last year and the Oscar winning Moonlight in 2016. What’s wonderful about Burnham’s Eighth Grade is how both classic and contemporary it is. I’m transported back to my eighth grade in the deep past of the Transistoraus Rex of Toledo, Ohio, where your only friend was a pocket radio under the covers.

The whole culture seemed meaner then than Kayla’s smartphone world. I had to outrun the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park to get to Bus #24 lined up behind Washington Jr. High School. And inside the school, if you’d have said the word anxiety to anyone then, no one would have known what you were talking about. They’d just hit you. The dean of boys had a paddle. Anxious? Whack.

By contrast, Burnham’s Eighth Grade is actually a softer world. The parents are nicer, the principal is nicer, still stupid but nicer. They all deal with emotions as if they’re coordinates in a dimension we all live in. That’s good, right? But then you watch slack-jawed when the film cuts to the principal dressed in fatigues and a face mask moving down the main corridor pointing a gun at every third kid lined up against the lockers. “Bang, you’re dead,“ he says. It’s the Active Shooter Drill. It’s what every school does now.

It isn’t just the internet that’s new, it’s the isolation and anger it underlines. Early on in Eighth Grade’s assembly, the band plays an exaggerated off-key Star Spangled Banner, conducted by the middle-aged male teacher with a string pony tail down his back. It’s Kayla’s job to hit the cymbals with a loud eclat. It’s the project all along of the film to get her to believe the sound of her two hands clapping. By the end, I did. So might you.