I cried all the way through Eighth Grade, the excellent debut feature of Bo Burnham. This experience was a new one for me. Usually my cinematic crying experiences are limited to a couple tears rolling down my cheek or that thing where your eyes get a bit red but no actual liquid comes out. I should explain that there were tears of joy as well as tears of sadness through the screening. Still, I’m not sure I could overstate the visceral emotional reaction I had to the movie. The main reason why I am framing this discussion in terms of crying is partly because good film criticism involves working backwards from the actual experience of watching a movie. What the movie actually makes you feel is an incredibly important part of analysing and understanding it. More than that, I bring up my emotional response because Eighth Grade is a movie that places such a high value on empathy that I want to be totally transparent and communicative about those emotions. This movie is arriving at a time when it’s sorely needed and its mission statement of placing empathy above all else makes it a truly radical and worthwhile experience.
When I say radical, I don’t mean it like how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might mean it. I am talking about the radicalism of Antifa or the Black Panthers. We live in a time of diminished empathy. I don’t mean to say that North America was ever a bastion of empathy and kindness. However, from where I sit, it is undeniable as refugees are turned away because saving their lives might stifle economic growth and as a buffoonish cartoon character still presides over the United States due in large part to his promise of erecting a giant monument to hate that we have an empathy problem. This problem isn’t just an insiders/outsiders thing either, it is also generational (to name just one way we are bad at empathizing with each other). This is a time where the young blame the old for destroying the planet and ushering in a neoliberal hellscape from which there might be no return and the old blame the young for being self absorbed, whiny and perpetually “triggered”.
Eighth Grade feels like a movie aimed squarely people who digest anti-millennial hot takes with glee. It is a movie that has the courage to treat the life of a middle schooler as having real weight and importance. It asks us to empathize with Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) as she goes to pool parties and agonizes over her lack of popularity. Burnham has the wisdom and technical filmmaking skills to make these things feel like life and death because, despite being conditioned to view young people’s lives as unimportant, this stuff subjectively feels like exactly that to them. The main way that Burnham addresses this generational divide is through the relationship between Kayla and her father, Mark. They are always framed in wide shots together, occupying opposite ends of large frames as they fail to communicate their positions to one another again and again as the film goes on. Mark is far from the crotchety and disgruntled guy that a you might think would represent his generation on screen. Even though he has his flaws, he is an example of what Gen Xers ought to be. He is persistent, willing to be patient with his daughter as she learns to articulate herself and always responds to her problems with love.
It is a sad fact that “love is radical” reflexively evokes comparisons to the perpetually stoned and lazy hippie archetype because it’s the actual truth. Underneath all of the compelling drama and visceral cringe scenes, Eighth Grade is a movie about learning to love yourself, love your family and love even the scariest, most unpleasant parts of life. I was exactly like Kayla until, if I am being honest, recently. Anxiety dominated my life in a really big way until I finally decided to seek help for it midway through my university degree. Until I made the best decision of my life and talked with professionals about these issues, anxiety chipped away at my confidence, self worth and ability to articulate myself in a big way. It still does, in fact. I persistently work on learning to love myself and others. I work on being okay with the fact that my nervous system will conflate sharing an idea with my professor or boss with being attacked by a stampede of machine gun wielding dinosaurs. This film really gets what that journey can be like and the honesty and reality of the depiction is unlike anything else I have seen in a movie.
This review is more personal than most because the film is as personal as they come. That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the movie is an extremely well made version of what it is. The movie feels largely plotless, which serves it well in an unexpected way. If “on a general trajectory to what feels like nowhere in particular” doesn’t describe adolescence than maybe I just had a strange one. Burnham also leans heavily on POV shots to convey Kayla’s perspective as well as a repeating theme of slow tracking shots both towards and away from her. Through these shots, we are always made privy to Kayla’s tendency to be hyper critical and self focused while also being reminded of her status as one microbe in a vast social ecosystem. This is strong filmmaking that I wasn’t sure Burnham would have in him. Any praise I have for Burnham’s direction is met equally by the astonishment I have towards Fischer’s performance. She is so convincingly inarticulate and so authentically layers her performative social persona on top of her anxious, hyper-aware personality that the film often feels like a documentary. Kayla arrives from scene on as a complex, multifaceted human being and Fischer is magnetic for every step of her journey.
My reaction to this film is deeply subjective but, if you can help it, don’t write off this review because of that. The best movies find universality in specifics. I have never been a performer who is coping with his perceived irrelevance but The Wrestler resonates with me every time I watch it. I’ve never found out that I was, in fact, a superhero and had that information solve a lot of my midlife crisis issues but Unbreakable is my favorite movie of all time. I have no doubt that you will see yourself reflected in Kayla’s experiences as I did because when it comes to anxiety, popularity, self worth and socializing we are only really different in degrees if you don’t count serial killers. There is so much more to say about this film and even in this somewhat lengthy review I feel like I have barely scratched the surface. I urge you to see this movie in a theater while you can, it’s as vital and endearing a debut feature as I have ever seen.