Compassion drives Bo Burnham’s ‘Eighth Grade’

Elsie Fisher as Kayla in ‘Eighth Grade.’ — video still

I had never heard of Bo Burnham, who wrote and directed Eighth Grade (currently screening at both FilmScene and Marcus Cinemas in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids), but found it fitting that my child — who just completed that educational milestone — was quite familiar with his work as a comedian and had been a fan of his humor for a few years. Watching one of his Netflix shows after the movie showed how brilliantly his early self-referential introspection translates into the film, which tracks the final week of eighth grade for Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher).

The opening scene sets the stage for the movie: The image of a streamed video depicting Kayla wrestling with the infinitely complicated question of identity, convincingly interspersed with vocal disfluencies that stereotypically define tweens and teens (um, yeah, like, etc.). “What does it mean to be one’s self?” “How can you be anyone but yourself?” The resolution at the end is, “Don’t care what other people think about you and everything will work out.”

As with most clichés, there’s much wisdom embedded in the statement that proves meaningless to anyone who has not learned that lesson independently of its truth. The bulk of the movie’s humor rests in the unintentionally hilarious ways that people attempt to take that advice; its poignant truth rests in the moments of authenticity that offer proof.

Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton in ‘Eighth Grade,’ playing now. — video still

The trailers show the awkward humor that (unlike Napoleon Dynamite) allows audiences to laugh at themselves alongside the characters. It replaces humiliation with humility. The genius of framing the movie through eighth grade is in depicting behaviors before they are cemented into characters. One can witness insecurity, cruelty, pretense and awkwardness as performative roles rather than personal traits, and everyone in the audience can reflect on what causes the lack of authenticity.

Each of these roles seems to exist in relation to the question of social judgment, showing how the fear of scorn and ridicule combine with an uncertainty about the quality of one’s core character to make it almost impossible to be oneself. Gently, with grace, the movie shows how childish behaviors can co-exist with adult questions: In accepting this in some of the actors, one can learn to laugh, perhaps, at oneself. Ultimately, although the focus of the movie is on the teenage protagonists, it’s made clear that few humans truly move past this particular hurdle.

Beyond this universal truth of being human, which allows even a middle aged man to learn from the life of a teenage girl, the movie also shows the particular crises that affect young women today. The movie’s use of music subtly reflects the experience of having a crush, and shows the dissonance between our body’s impulses and the more noble qualities of character. But the boys of the movie are allowed to be mostly mute, two-dimensional figures whose own sexual desires seem cliché. Kayla’s navigation of two sexualized potential relationships nicely dramatized how difficult it is to feel like one has done the right thing when posed with the wrong question, and how easy it is to attempt to compensate for insecurity through performance — especially in a digital age.

Eighth Grade does an exceptionally good job of showing the influence of digital culture on the social and physical realities of Americans today. From the immersive glowing joy that absorbs Kayla, complete with rapturous pop tones from her earbuds, while her father tries to connect with her to her time alone in her bedroom, lights sparkling above, the internet is shown as being a source of chilling existential isolation and unreality. While smartphones are shown as a tool that can allow connections — with a high school mentor and an endearingly awkward potential romance — it is more often shown as presenting a void where one learns to perfect blankness.

There’s an unreal perfection made available in the digital context, in which each interaction can be scripted and edited, that provides an illusion that all is well in the isolation of one’s room — and which only makes it more devastating when one is forced into real life. Some seem better at modeling this kind of empty perfection in their real and everyday lives, and the movie does an excellent job of depicting the superficiality of this choice without judgment.

Elsie Fisher as Kayla in ‘Eighth Grade.’ — video still

Kayla knows how to replicate this impervious expressionlessness, as she shows her dad during dinner, but she also knows the shame of when it is done to her, as occurs when she attempts to talk to two classmates. We personify that blankness, which simultaneously protects and dehumanizes us. Facebook is shown as already obsolete for Kayla, who relies on YouTube as a site for encountering her ego-ideals — both her own channel, where she provides advice that she herself desires to take, and lessons on how to do everything from apply makeup to provide blowjobs.

While noting the importance of the digital world, the movie wisely shows the implications of this world on everyday reality. It is in the space of bodily interactions, not the scripted perfections of the digital, that we see the characters at their most human. In allowing audiences to laugh at braces, or the gap between Kayla’s green, one-piece swimsuit and the two-piece suits and toned bodies of her “popular” classmates, the movie provides reminders that our realities are ridiculous — but also a source of joy, instead of shame: The camera never shames what it depicts.

Even as it is willing to immerse itself in awkwardness for longer than most movies, eliminating the safety of a soundtrack while showing the desperation behind self-depreciation (hitting the bullseye in this attempt), the movie does so in a way that gently invites the audience to move toward compassion rather than scorn.

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