By Owen Van Spall @ Moving Pictures Cinema
I watched Eighth Grade at Moving Pictures Cinema in Mercato Metropolitano. I have never been an eighth-grade American female schoolchild, but I still had a blast with writer-director Bo Burnham’s deeply empathetic, funny and moving drama about a young girl battling her insecurities in a world where everyone is broadcasting their best self 24/7 online and all your inner demons threaten to spill out at any moment and be written forever in the permanent ink of the internet. I found a lot to relate to in Burnham’s film, despite my distance from its main character in real life, mainly because insecurity is such a widely-shared trait, and even if not everyone has been insecure, everyone has been a child at some point wondering if they are going to be able to figure things out well enough that the ground will stop feeling like its moving under your feet.
The entire film is built around a superbly convincing performance by young actress Elsie Fisher, who plays suburban eighth grader Kayla Day, struggling to not set off any social landmines during her last week of classes at Miles Grove Middle School – a public school in the state of New York -before graduating to high school. The pimpled 13-year old struggles with social anxiety and is voted “Most Quiet” by her classmates, but back home she toils away producing little-seen vlogs giving life advice, and these both bookend and intercut the narrative whilst allowing us a glimpse into her growth. The near-constant presence of Youtube and Instagram in the narrative are more than just the kind of window-dressing that shows Burnham ‘gets it’ that these are regular tools of today’s youth; social media here is explored as both a hindrance and a help to someone like Kayla. By the end of the film, her vlogs, despite consisting to a large degree of ‘like’, ’yeah’ and ‘errm’ (she is an American school kid, after all), suggest real introspection has been gained about how projecting out into the world about her much-mulled-over thoughts might be a more healthy pursuit than simply sucking all the visuals in; given social media allows careful filtering to show only the carefully curated wins at life.
Some edgier experiences, such as a car trip with a young male admirer that raises the risk of sexual assault, ground us in the reality of a newly-minted teen’s life amidst a lot of nice glossy visuals, catchy pop song needledrops (including Enya!) and a likeable score by Anne Meredith, and some zanier beats. But it all, ultimately, hinges on Fisher’s superbly nuanced performance. This is my first experience with the young star in a film role, though she began her career in 2009 with a role in the television series Medium at age 6 before voicing Agnes in the first two Despicable Me films. I hope I see her again in a film project, as she is so engaging, vulnerable and funny as this kid who, ultimately, will be ok in the end.
It would, however be remiss to mention one key pillar in Elsie’s life, one that lets us leave the theatre with some relief that this kid has the space and time to figure out a way forward. Elsie is being raised by her single father Mark, played with heartbreaking conviction by actor Josh Hamilton. Initially presented as a cringe-inducing figure of comedy who tries to make Elise laugh by trying to wear his ‘cool dad’ schtick ironically, Mark is eventually shown to have both his own inner life and his own inherited pain, but he has never wavered in an absolute certainly that not only is Elsie and absolute gift to his existence, but that as her father it is his job to always be there, no matter how much she might slam the door in his face or let the iPhone hold her gaze during dinner. In one scene, one that did make it feel ‘just a little dusty’ in the cinema, Mark has a heart-to-heart with his child that reassures her that not only he loves Elise no matter what, but his constant supportive presence, even if mostly silent and unacknowledged, means she has the space to do the most important thing for her growth: the space to fail. In a present day where, as the director put it, kids have been ‘“forced by a culture they did not create to be conscious of themselves at every moment”, that there are more parents like Mark.
Review by Owen Van Spall