Eighth Grade taps into a universal experience

In speaking with others who have seen Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, I’ve found a common thread brought up by just about everyone. It seems that people are extremely surprised that Burnham, an adult male, was able to write such an accurate and caring depiction of the life of a teenaged girl. This is a well-intentioned enough thought, even if it’s one steeped in the more assumptive side of the identity politics movement, but hearing it spoken so much has certainly been of value. Why? Well sit down, things are about to get #problematic.

Personally, I am not the biggest fan of identity politics. I think that much of the discourse surrounding such a thing is limiting. While yes, we should absolutely be considerate of the experiences of others, and do our best to make sure that some level of understanding is reached before invoking aspects of a community of which we are not a part, I fear for a future when filmmakers can only write about their own experience, telling their story through characters that are only representative of themselves, who are in turn played only by performers who fit the demographic mold of the character. An exaggeration for sure, but it’s one worth thinking about. Especially since, in my experience, the vitriol thrown around when it comes to identity and representation is often arbitrary, coasting on whatever progressive notion is fashionable at the moment. What I’m saying is that we live in a world where it’s considered surprising that Bo Burnham, an artist who has proven himself to be a smart, nuanced writer for years before making his debut film, is able to make a film that is both smart and nuanced. That seems weird to me. It almost feels like we want him to fail.

Granted, I think it’s extremely important that we allow room for representative voices to tell their stories, to listen to those stories without judgment, and to boost underrepresented voices into more opportunities. I think it’s equally important to highlight those times where an artist fails to do the proper research in creating media that speaks from outside of their experience. But to have a built in expectation of failure? Well that’s just rude.

So how did Bo Burnham do it? How did he create such a lovely coming of age tale about a young woman using the brain of an older man? Two words: universal themes.

I can’t confirm it, but apparently the script was initially written with a male lead in mind, and as film productions go, this eventually changed to a young woman. As such, a lot of the thematic work would certainly be more in tune with Burnham’s life experience. However, I would bet that had the film been made as planned, it would be just as universally relatable. Eighth Grade speaks to the awkwardness of adolescence, the need for self-acceptance, the quest for honesty with oneself, and the importance of making peace with (and finding strength in) one’s flaws. These are things that all of us think about – which all of us saw magnified during our youth. 

That’s really the trick of Eighth Grade. This is a story about how, when you’re entering your teenage years, everything you experience seems like its the most important thing in the world. It’s easy to run afoul of authority figures because they have often forgotten exactly what it’s like to have such heightened feelings. Kids think that the tiniest stuff is monumental, and their parents find it all to be relatively silly. The reality is that they’re both right. And to me, this is what Eighth Grade is all about. 

Elsie FIsher plays Kayla, an uncommonly self-aware teen who, during the final week of the eighth grade, decides to make a valiant attempt at self-improvement. She wants to make friends with the popular girls, perhaps find a boyfriend, and really do anything that may raise her social standing. She lives with her dad (Mom is out of the picture for unspecified reasons), who absolutely adores her, and is doing his best to facilitate his daughter’s growth while respecting her desire for freedom and maturity. Dad (Josh Hamilton) wants to be cool, but has made peace with the fact that he is indeed Dad. Burnham’s gentle, funny yarn follows Kayla to a pool party, the mall, a potentially dangerous encounter with an aggressive boy, all the way through until graduation. The stakes are relatively low (from my outsider adult perspective), but as I said before, to Kayla, they are everything.

Really, this is a story about maturity – about realizing that sometimes the only way out is through, and once you get there, it was those unsure, scary times which made it all worthwhile. 

Is as if Burnham is saying “Hey kids, you’re gonna be alright. Just live it.”

It’s also as if Burnham is saying “Hey grown-ups, the kids are gonna be alright. Just let them live.”

Far be it from me to harsh on a first time filmmaker for using so much gaudy handheld cam (especially since YouTube was his original claim to fame), but short of that, Burnham’s film looks fantastic. The way he uses cuts to punctuate light humor is wonderful. Unsurprising given his natural gift toward comedy. With such a light touch, the film can bounce from funny to sad to warm often within a single scene, reflecting oh so naturally the schizophrenic nature of the adolescent psyche. Even the score, an electronic smorgasbord of sound by composer Anna Meredith, is employed with such a pointed delicacy that even with so many aural bells and whistles, it’s not a tonal mismatch. If anything, it is perfectly indicative of the innerworkings of the adolescent brain, neurons firing, hormones raging, rallying to control a body at war with itself. 

Elsie Fisher puts on a phenomenal show here, exhibiting a young woman who exudes confidence in private, but wrestles with it in public. She’s a girl who knows what she should want, but is unsure of whether or not she actually wants it. What she is sure of is how to go about getting it. I don’t know where they found Ms. Fisher, but I’m glad they did. The young actress is certainly playing a character, but her approach is so naturalistic that it’s hard to believe you’re watching a fictional movie and not a home video.

Same goes for Josh Hamilton, an actor who has been in a million different things but doesn’t yet have a household name. His performance is one of grace and kindness laced with a bizarre streak of humor which could only be described as Dad-like. It certainly made me feel old to find that Dad is the guy I related to most.

But even so, I found the entire experience to be relatable. Most audiences will. One of the most fascinating and heartbreaking things about growing up is the cultivation of wisdom. It seems every year I look backward and feel shame for something I said, did, or felt, and this is true for everybody with the decency to better themselves. Seeing this path writ large is something that anyone can enjoy, and if my conversations with fellow audience members are to be believed, enjoy it they did. 

So yes, Bo Burnham put in the work and put together one of the finest films of 2018. And he did so by treating his subjects with love – by avoiding judgment. This is a kind, loving film that will warm your heart to no end. Good stories, no matter who writes them or who is represented within them, can move and entertain any audience. Inclusivity and representation are good things for all media, and I believe that part of the movement is making sure that good examples of such a thing are elevated and broadcast to the masses. So yeah, Bo Burnham may be an adult man, but he just gave us a wonderful, grown-up story about a young woman coming of age – something that we rarely ever see. Perhaps, the popularity of this film will open more doors for stories like this to be told, and hopefully by people who have the lived experience to speak with authority. But as is, I don’t care who makes the art I consume, so long as they make it well. 

Eighth Grade opens in Philly theaters today.

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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