With the success of films like Lady Bird and Call Me by Your Name, it seems the last year has been a rich period for coming-of-age films, making it easy to come into Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade with certain expectations. When the initial trailer came out, someone I knew told me that the film looked like “Lady Bird 2.0.” Obviously, knowing the track record of A24, as well as having a strong familiarity with Burnham’s stand up, I had an inclination that it would have something new to say – and man, was I right. Other than both films being about a young girl growing into a new period in their life, the two are practically incomparable.
Eighth Grade captures a unique essence about what it feels like to grow up. In an interview, Burnham emphasized that the film wasn’t meant to dramatize young people’s apparent “experiences,” but to accurately depict how much they heighten each moment that infiltrates their lives. Whether it’s going to a cool-girl’s birthday party, meeting up with a new friend, or trying to understand sexual experiences, everything that Elsie Fisher’s character, Kayla, goes through is something that anyone could relate to. In fact, as a young woman who lived in a relatively suburban environment during her teenage years, I could pinpoint times in my life where I had the same experience, and the exact reaction to that experience, as Kayla. I had been to a pool party where I felt the need to somehow “get-in” with these people, to random “hangouts” at a mall, where all you do is sit and chat in a food court. While I was just growing up during the conception of Instagram, I can still remember everyone’s infatuation with it, even if filters were just beginning to be introduced. However, I did go through endless hours shuffling through my Tumblr feed and feeling inspired/understood/depressed by the quotes, stories, and pictures shared on its platform.
Not only does it relay the interesting aspects about sociability – and social media – as an awkward, acne prone teen, but the relationship between Kayla and her father was also a captivating point of understanding. Whether it was the father’s confusion at his daughter’s seemingly random antics or his desire to understand her, I could see my own father in the character. He is truly the dad that any confused, frustrated, and erratic teen could have ever hoped for — but would have felt embarrassed by. What is so masterful about the piece was not only Burnham’s understanding of the adolescent experience, but also how he and his collaborators captured it on screen.
The score, composed by Anna Meredith, is impeccably Burnham’s, sounding as if it’s been stolen from one of his sets. While banging, loud, and slightly obnoxious at times, it created a unique tone that perfectly pinpointed the heightened hormones of a thirteen year old. The sound design is specific, transplanting the audience inside Kayla’s existence, whether it was through her Photo Booth, her headphones, or understanding of the space she resided in. But it is also unafraid of beautiful moments of silence. Furthermore, the attention to framing and camera movement, generally effervescent in all of A24’s films, allows the audience to feel all of Kayla’s overwhelming sensations and creates a sense of isolation from her and the world around her. The attention to detail in the various mis-en-scene elements illustrated the authenticity, whether it was the decision to allow Elsie to showcase her acne-prone skin, the cracked iPhone, or the chokers nearly every female cast-member was wearing at some point.
“What is so masterful about the film was not only Burnham’s understanding of the adolescent experience, but also how he and his collaborators captured it on screen.”
One of the standouts in the film was the attention that was placed into casting. Not only were all of the extras of actual middle-school age, which is nearly unbelievable if we look back at most other grade-school age films, but the starring cast members were so aware and simple in their experience of each character. It is still baffling that casting was able to find a young actress like Elsie who was able to convey the adolescent experience with such honesty and likability. Every cast member is so committed to the reality and quirks of their own characters that it’s easy to get lost in the performances, whether it was the quirky adorableness of Jake Ryan’s portrayal of Gabe, Luke Prael’s depiction of a kid who is indifferent but horny, or Emily Robinson’s energy and big sister-like compassion.
The big question facing any sort of coming-of-age film: is what new thing does it add to this already bustling genre? For me, Eighth Grade provided a window into the uncertainty of growing up, dealing with illusive hormones, existing in a space, and learning about confidence, sexuality, and who you are, but also how easily this can relate to any person’s experience regardless of age. We would love to think that all seemingly unnecessary anxieties, uncertainties, and insecurities go away with age, but, while we can learn to manage them better, they are always a part of our lives. As Kayla grows into her new “high school self,” she keeps an understanding that not everything will always be figured out, that anxiety is an acceptable and normal aspect of people’s lives, but that time moves on, and will be forever changing the fragments of our existence.