In the course of writing evaluative pieces on film, a reviewer must always contend with their own biases related to form and content. This is by necessity, for if a critic tasks themselves with writing on movies that are “outside” their preferred aesthetic wheelhouse, then they will inevitably come across films that, try as they might, they cannot help but feel repulsed by. Of course, no film is made for everyone, and some films, even and especially those in the consciousness of mainstream culture, are hyper-specific in their catering to a specific audience. But there is a feeling of churlishness that can arise, one that exists on a level that exceeds a reaction that merely runs counter to a critical and cultural consensus.
I say all of this to give some context for my personal reaction to Eighth Grade, the directorial debut of YouTube personality Bo Burnham. As the title suggests, it covers the last week of the middle school tenure of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an outwardly shy and quiet student who posts daily YouTube vlogs covering topics almost exclusively related to self-betterment. Through the course of these few days, she deals with a variety of awkward and sometimes intensely embarrassing social situations, all while contending with the various pressures and possibilities of modern social media.
And make no mistake: Eighth Grade is a film aggressively of the moment, intent on locating itself in, if not 2018, then certainly sometime within the past three years. Digital means of escape abound: Kayla spends somewhere around a full fourth of her screen-time glued to her smartphone or laptop. The calling of Snapchat and Instagram, with their potential for both defining one’s online persona and voyeuristically gazing at others, draw her eyes and ears away from the outside world, which more often than not is characterized by what can only be described as superficial interest. Save for her loving and protective father Mark (Josh Hamilton), every other character is so wrapped up in either their friendships or their own desires to return to mobile screens that they can spare barely a moment for someone as meek as Kayla.
On its own, the use of social media platforms to this extent in a film is fascinating. What makes it feel so abrasive is what surrounds it, and in particular the often contradictory and annoying perspective taken by Burnham. His observational mode seems to be an alienating blend of sympathy and mocking, where similar actions – say, a person scrolling on a smartphone – is given a drastically different level of implicit approval based on the character who is enacting it. Obviously, context matters, but Burnham seems to lionize Kayla while giving off an air of condescension when dealing with most of the other characters.
However, Burnham seems to have a whole host of other problems when attempting to deal with Kayla. What surprises most is the inconsistency of Eighth Grade: Burnham’s penchant for using more tripod master shots than handheld shot/reverse-shots is fairly welcome (though they do clash with some more overbearing touches), and a handful of moments of both isolation and connection do land in a manner that feels genuine and heartfelt. But as an overall narrative arc, Burnham falls back on clumsy structuring devices and signposts. Chief among these irritating motifs is the repeated (mis)use of Kayla’s vlogs: aside from the first one, which is shown almost wholly in a wonderfully halting single take, each one is overlaid in voiceover onto a scene that literally demonstrates what Kayla is talking about and attempting to enact. More than anything, this decision demonstrates a lack of fidelity to Kayla’s sole point of pride at the beginning of the film. Additionally, there is a sequence that, while well-executed and all-too-resonant with the current state of cultural affairs, feels exploitative and more than a little disgusting when considering its place in the narrative, completely throwing off the mood expressed by the film up to that point, and correspondingly making the resolution feel pat and tremendously unsatisfying.
Eighth Grade is a bundle of contradictions, coming across as both utterly banal and tame and enervatingly brash and vulgar (the latter impulse is embodied all too well by the horrendously overblown electronic score). Undoubtedly, it is best suited to those who find the sight of a middle school principal dabbing or the introduction of a popular kid with a close-up on his eyes as dubstep blares hilarious. (I do not, though almost all of the roaring audience at my screening undoubtedly does.) The most charitable thing that I can say for this film is that it largely accomplishes what it sets out to do, in no small part to the winning efforts of Fisher and Hamilton. But what it aimed for left me feeling repulsed and thoroughly disengaged. To say that it is a movie that feels alienated from any conventional conception of human behavior is inaccurate; the more worrying truth is that it feels all too aligned with modern forms of communication and self-awareness. And Burnham is content to merely gently poke fun while trapping his well-realized central character in a set path of enlightenment, rather than probing and dissecting this culture at large. In short: I’m less than 10 years older than the characters depicted in this film, but Eighth Grade made me feel ancient.