- 16 Apr 19
Directed by Bo Burnham. Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan. In cinemas April 26.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone who says that school days are the best days is a psychopath, a liar or an amnesiac. Just ask Bo Burnham. Becoming famous via YouTube at 16, the writer-director is keenly aware of the pressures facing young people: the pressure to perform an idealised self online; the dissonance that can arise between your interior and exterior self; and the paradox of being constantly accessible via your phone – whilst still feeling lonely.
Burnham’s comedy has always made fine use of his excruciating sense of self – and he brings this almost painfully perceptive wisdom to his directorial debut. Focusing on the last year of American middle school, Eighth Grade stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla, a shy 13-year-old whose awkwardness isn’t the “adorkable” clumsiness or gutsy precociousness often represented onscreen.
Kayla is genuinely insecure, her desperation to be liked coming out in streams of stuttering, over-eager people-pleasing – when she speaks, at all. These unconvincing attempts at nonchalance define the tone of her YouTube videos, where she recites self-affirmation clichés, telling her peers to “be yourself!” Except they’re not listening, because no-one watches her videos. And she can’t follow her own advice. Fisher’s performance and Burnham’s writing are exquisite in their detail, capturing Elsie’s self-conscious journey: her attempts to follow beauty tutorials online; her discomfort at a party where she knows she’s not wanted; her exasperated interactions with her well-meaning father; and her utter panic when an older boy tries to pressure her sexually.
Burnham’s writing and directing eschew the artifice behind what Elsie and her peers consume. Instead of populating his film with gorgeous 25-year-olds, as is the norm for teen films, his casting is age-appropriate and authentic. It’s important: seeing actual children navigate intricate and often very adult pressures with the emotional intensity only a body full of hormones and uncertainty can produce. Gloriously, cringe-inducingly authentic, watch to understand the teenagers in your life – or just to forgive the teen you once were.