In a both on-brand and slightly masochistic move, I chose a supremely awkward film as the first to review: Eighth Grade.
Eighth Grade, written and directed by Bo Burnham, released in 2018 as the young director’s first feature film. You may remember him from the Pre-Historic Youtube Era, when Burnham and a few other early Youtubers capitalized on the platform’s infancy as a jump-off for their entertainment careers. For the most part, he strummed songs on his guitar and melodied about hot-button topics– and received some shit for it, too. (Hard not to as a white, publicly straight guy who raps and uses topics like racism and LGBTQ issues to “make it”.)
If you haven’t heard any of the buzz– Eighth Grade is a hilariously, unsettlingly honest tale following a young teenage girl named Kayla as she’s thrown into the demonic pit of pubescent doom that is eighth grade. Kayla lives with her single parent father and makes vlogs in the comfort of her room; she’s anticipating eighth grade with nervous dread– but a little excitement as well. It is clear that she is looking for transformation, however it is (naturally) not until the tail end of the film that Kayla revelates on the truth of her path to self-actualization.
Despite moving through middle school as... say, a not-blonde, not-middle-class white girl? – the viewing experience quickly conjured what felt like war flashbacks. However, a small part of me was immediately drawn– perhaps seeking answers, and a sense of peace, from a phase of my life I’ve comfortably suppressed.
Kayla’s story probably resonates more with some of us than others. By some of us, I mean people like me. In middle school, I donned the latest Walmart line more times than I’d like to admit, and learned how to style my hair way too late (like 3 months ago late). Most importantly, I weighed much more than the majority of my peers. It was a miserable time if I’m being real with you. I’ll get into it in a later post, though. To the movie.
We hear the too-familiar beep... beep.. beep that preludes a Photobooth photo/video. Kayla’s face lights up the screen and it is clear within seconds that she is shooting a vlog– to whom we’re unsure. (Appropriate intro for Burnham.)
But the vlog intro serves as more than a directorial reference– Burnham uses this scene and the next to establish his cinematic technique early on in the film.
Kayla’s “vlog episode” is essentially a looooong shot of painful, 380p awkwardness– her laptop camera feels unrelenting as she stutters through a series of one-liners you’d expect to read on an inspirational Instagram post, written in cursive and over a stock photo of dandelions.
In the next shot, and when the film’s primary camera is introduced, she sits in the right-third of the frame lit only by her laptop screen and DIY lighting. We realize that she was recording her cheery self-help video in near-complete darkness. Cut to black.
The following sequence includes a montage overlaying a clusterfuck of Youtube make-up & lifestyle vlogs over Kayla preparing nervously for her “big first day” and a series of over-the-shoulder (OTS) shots of Kayla walking to school on her first day of eighth grade. The OTS shot in my opinion completes the film’s general cinematographic approach.
Back to long shots: they are effective for so many reasons. (If you’re ever unconvinced, watch John Woo’s hospital scene in Hard Boiled.)
In this movie, however, they serve to force us (the viewer) to witness the pauses and stutters that movies tend to cut out for smoothness’ sake– and kind of turn scenes into a human study. Kayla’s awkward, life isn’t that exciting, and at the same time, even life in middle-class suburbia has its beauty.
Burnham continues to play with these “new-age media” tropes, with more montage of bright social media images superimposed on Kayla’s emotionless face, and more vlog episodes.
This includes another vlog episode that she boldly titles “Putting. Yourself. Out there.”, with a word-for-word emphasis and tone of importance that made me laugh. This scene was actually really cool, though. As Kayla continues to spew her self-help caca to the camera, you realize that she’s telling a story about herself from the perspective of an imaginary friend. (I.e. “I have a friend who [insert whatever you’re too ashamed to admit to].)
Kayla tells a story about a “weird girl” she was forced to invite to a party, but ended up being “really cool”. Hearing the vlog narration as she pulls up to a popular girl’s pool party, it’s clear the weird girl is her. (Kayla also clearly doesn’t know how to tell a good lie?)
The refreshing part of this scene is that it foreshadows a transformative moment in the film– when Kayla finally takes her own advice. In a move I honestly did not expect, after suffering a panic attack in Kennedy’s bathroom and awkward mutterings to the boy she likes, Kayla strides over to the room all of her classmates are in, picks up the microphone, and starts singing karaoke– in front of everyone.
From then on, Kayla is no longer living as a witness to her peers. She asserted herself in that room, and again when she joins a high school mentor program, and again and again following that moment.
It’s never pretty, though. Even in Kayla’s most glorious moment (finally telling off Kennedy for being who my friend called “a bitch”) (notice how I used my friend as a crutch), she cuts her own speech off midway after realizing she has nothing else to say, and shuffles away. And despite wincing through it all– you know what?! I found her incredibly cool.
Burnham drills into us that life itself can’t be cut, curated, or photoshopped– and the way we try to make it such only makes the entire experience more awkward. Life is silent family dinners; excruciating seconds spent alone in a crowded room full of laughing peers; sincere gestures you took a risk on and were left unheard or unanswered.
Kayla eventually finds a genuinely good friend in the mentor group, and another in a strange and sickeningly adorable boy named Gabe. (Their chicken tender dinner melted my heart.)
The general takeaway, for me, is that it’s always possible to meet yourself where you are with love. Or at least start to– that is hopefully the child of the ugly birth that is middle school.