FilmSpace at Glasgow Film Festival: Eighth Grade

FilmSpace is at the 15th Glasgow Film Festival, bringing a series of reviews on loads of new films. Film critic Calum Cooper singles out his personal favourite from the festival, a sincere and heartfelt portrayal of teenage angst.

Eighth Grade – ★★★★★

“Hey guys! It’s Kayla, coming at you with another video!”

These words open Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, as the first frame fades in. They belong to Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a 13-year-old in her final week of eighth grade. She is filming a YouTube Vlog on how to be yourself. It’s not the first video she has made concerning topics of this calibre, as she operates a prolific channel. Discussing various subjects, such as how confidence is a choice, she appears to be bubbly and spirited.

But then she starts repeating sayings and tumbling over her words. The camera slowly but surely pulls back, leaving her further and further away. Something seems off.

And it doesn’t take long to find out what. In her videos, Kayla appears energetic and outgoing. In reality, she is painfully shy. The following scenes of her school life reveal her true colours. She is voted Most Quiet by her class. Her attempts to catch the attention of her crush Aiden result in barely a glance. And she is often seen towards the back of the class, as if deliberately keeping her distance. Even when her own father (Josh Hamilton) tries to interact with her, she would rather listen to music and scroll through Instagram.

A look into her middle school time capsule only deepens her anguish, as a lack of fulfilment eats away at her. Fearing what may come once she hits high school, she decides to start practicing what she preaches. She vows to overcome her anxiety, put herself out there, and, hopefully, make some genuine friends before middle school ends.

These are the foundations to Eighth Grade, a movie that I had heard so much buzz about from American audiences that the urge to see it gnawed away at me for months. I have at last seen it for myself... And I am blown away! Eighth Grade was everything I hoped it would be and more. It struck such an emotional chord with me that it was borderline unnerving. It’s not just one of the year’s best. It’s one of the decade’s best!

The writing, editing, and visual look is so precise that we can garner vast amounts of character from Kayla purely on what social media she uses, and how she uses it. Sometimes it’s a form of escapism, but other times it only adds fuel to the fire of her woes.

It works so well because it understands and sympathises with the hardships of being a teenager; of being stuck in that horrendous phase between child and adult where the entire world seems to be against you. It’s particularly sympathetic to the plights of teenage girls, but its themes work regardless of gender. Unlike the social media darlings Kayla looks up to would have you believe, the film doesn’t sugar coat anything. Being a teenager sucks hard, and the film doesn’t shy away from the more terrifying aspects of this, whether that’s excessive acne, discovering different methods of sex, or the dread of having to interact with people you barely know, or worse dislike you. Burnham’s decision to cast actual 13-year-old Fisher, as well as using the students from where they filmed, Suffern Middle School, as extras only further add to the film’s uncanny sense of realism.

But they don’t just look like teenagers. They act and sound like them too. The dialogue’s careful repetition of words, phrases and references convey teenage minds exceptionally. It feels so organic just seeing the way Kayla interacts with her dad at home, or how she tries to converse with the school’s queen bee while timidly hanging by the corner.

This builds to what I see as a smart, intricate, and delicate examination on anxiety. The teenage years are hard enough, but if you’re one of the shyer ones then you may as well be surrendering yourself to nightmares incarnate. I was one of those quiet kids in my own secondary school days, and I was unsettled by just how accurately Burnham’s script captured the sufferings of being that reserved a person.

During the Q&A after the film, Burnham wisely explained that shyness is about wanting to say something but never knowing how to properly express it. This is, I feel, the character of Kayla in a nutshell. Many of the film’s scenes can only be described as pure cringe, but for once I mean that in a good way. It’s agonising seeing Kayla attempt to fit in with other people, as she tries and fails to put her own words of wisdom from her YouTube Vlogs into practice. But it’s never off-putting, as our sympathy and longing for Kayla to catch a damn break already overpowers any knots in our stomach the awkwardness creates.

Social media plays a big role too. When I spoke to Burnham on the red carpet, he talked about the impact the internet had had on him, and how it’s shaping the lives of today’s youth. This is very much true, and the film takes full advantage. The writing, editing, and visual look is so precise that we can garner vast amounts of character from Kayla purely from what social media she uses, and how she uses it. Sometimes it’s a form of escapism, but other times it only adds fuel to the fire of her woes. It’s a great paradox: we’re more connected than ever thanks to the internet, yet it also feeds on Kayla’s sense of disconnection.

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Film language is impeccably incorporated to empathise this. Burnham effectively utilises distance to heighten feelings of isolation. The camera pulls away from Kayla in the very first scene, and the following sequences enforce this established detachment. Kayla sits toward the back or side of the class. She leaves an empty chair in between her and her father at the dinner table. The camera will follow her from behind as she walks, or position itself so that she clings to the side of the frame, showing how far apart she is from people physically as well as mentally. The barriers are invisible, but the cinematography and lighting allow us to imagine them clearly. Add on Anna Meredith’s score, which sounds like it was born from the internet itself, and we witness the gruelling conflict between wonder and fear at the prospect of connecting with others.

Championing all of this is an utterly spellbinding performance from Elsie Fisher. It’s quite the responsibility to carry a whole film on your shoulders, but Fisher does so effortlessly. She captures the mannerisms, attitude, and deeper consciousness of 13-year-olds flawlessly. Her age undeniably plays a part in this, but it’s the clear understanding she has toward Kayla that makes her embodiment of the character so mesmerising, and partially horrifying as the subsequent events that happen to Kayla reopen our own wounds of teenage angst, memories that we may have otherwise repressed. It’s truly sublime acting.

Ultimately though, it was the film’s underlying tone that captivated me so splendidly. It can be a very melancholic piece, as Kayla’s ambitions bear little to no fruit. Yet, it has this heart-warming belief that, despite all the emotional strife of life, it’ll all be okay in the end. No matter what sorrows our teenage years, or even our current lives, may hold, it is only temporary. Things will get better. Maybe by a lot, or maybe not by much, but as long as you are true to yourself then everything will have a way of working itself out.

I could go on forever about Eighth Grade, but I feel like I’m pushing it enough as it is. Still, it’s a real powerhouse of a film, made all the more impressive as this is Burnham’s debut feature. It doesn’t condescend to today’s youth. It reassures and empathises with them, portraying feelings over narratives with such compassion that it becomes intoxicating. The added realism is brutal, but necessary in order to drive the point home. It’s charming, it’s excruciating, it’s funny, and it’s heart-breaking, sometimes simultaneously, but it is consistently confident, humble, and honest.

In other words, I fucking loved this movie!

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