Eighth Grade takes the coming-of-age exam and scores a stupendous “A-“. Middle school, the conception of adolescence through external influences, allows its pupils to explore their own personalities. To investigate what exactly defines them before transitioning to high school, where the studious focal point of career trajectory overwhelms. Eighth grade, in particular, personifying a last chance to produce an identity for one’s self. Friendships, cliques, potential relationships and personal interests. But what if none of them were readily available? What if approaching people was an almost impossible task? For Kayla, her overbearing anxiety and struggles with socialisation, landed her as the reserved personality of her year group, voted the “Most Quiet” student by her classmates. Nervously attempting to break this unwarranted mould, she relishes in opportunities to integrate with others, despite the anxious fear initially controlling her reserved nature. Desperately seeking a friend before moving up to high school.
The coming-of-age comedy-drama genre is, undoubtedly, saturated. Reason being, they are relatable to almost everyone who winces and the uncomfortable awkwardness of searching “how to perform good blowjobs” on YouTube and being disgusted by its contents (no? Just me then? Oh well...). So, the inevitable question is, what does Eighth Grade do confidently to differentiate itself from the likes of ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Boyhood’? The answer is surprisingly simple. It’s abundantly real. No clichés. No overtly familiar character arcs. Just real life dramatised.
It capitalises on the modernisation of social structures and how the era of Internet socialisation has decimated real communication. Kayla expends most of her time online, creating motivational videos revolving around confidence and procuring an investable self-image, whilst also scrolling through a selection of widely popular social media platforms. Barraging her unscripted monologues with “like” and “um” to accentuate struggles in exuding conviction. Yet, she is unable to adhere to her online persona. Her offline realness juxtaposing everything she yearns to be. Eighth Grade refuses to be a standard lesson in self-encouragement though teen angst. It’s an examination. A precise investigation into “Generation Z”, whom only know the world of Internet culture. Thirteen year-olds discussing fellatio, sexting each other and easily accessing desirable images. Concerned about public perception and appearances. Popularity contests determined by the amount of followers on one’s Instagram profile.
First-time director Burnham comments on the complications social media has injected into maturation. From his own experience as a YouTuber, at such a young age, the clarity to which Kayla’s woes and frustrations personify his own anxiety and loss of innocence derives from how hands-on his direction was. The camera never deters away from Kayla at any point. The gleaming spotlight is constantly on her. A tenuous symbolic reference to Burnham as a touring comedian, whom regularly suffered from panic attacks. The montage of videos beckoning for social acceptance. The controversial “truth or dare” scene that challenges the pressures of approval through sexuality (admittedly had me leaping out of my chair and pacing the floor...). Eighth Grade is a conduit for Burnham’s career, and the personable touches he sublimely inserted within his acute direction were unequivocally refreshing. That man is a walking bundle of talent, believe me.
Fisher’s performance as Kayla was just as exceptional, perhaps even more so. With the utmost respect, and without belittling her, she was abundantly ordinary. But that’s why Eighth Grade works so well. She isn’t a hyperbolic representation of both sides of the social spectrum. Fisher typifies the typical youthful member of its generation. Yet there is a power to her character that succinctly provides the necessary drama and relatability this story requires. The emotional fluctuations from happiness to depression. The incredibly poignant panic attacks. Her calm responses during the audacious “truth or dare” scene, criticising educational bodies for not exploring consent. There is heart to her performance that ignites a burning flame of vulnerable juvenility. If only Hamilton’s parental figure had more time to integrate with Kayla and impact various scenes, the bonfire sequence could’ve brought out more emotion from both characters. A beautifully performed scene, no doubt. However Kayla’s father felt accustomed to comic relief and exaggerated awkwardness rather than adhering to sincere advice, lessening the raw emotionality of that climactic talk. Had the feature extended its runtime by a further ten minutes to establish their relationship even further, well, Eighth Grade could’ve attained perfect test results.
Alas, what Burnham offers is a palatable, palpable and probable insight into life as an eighth grader for the current generation. Propelling the social implications of Internet anonymity for our offline personas, and how it affects the mentality of young girls susceptible to such information. A truly, truly special directorial debut.