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‘Eighth Grade’ profoundly comforting, heartbreaking

| Monday, September 3, 2018

Joseph Han | The Observer

Eighth grade is the worst.

Take the birthday pool party, for instance. For the introverted, self-conscious kid with anxiety, a pool party is a minefield of potential trauma. Social interaction without the comfortable confines of the classroom, gift-giving, navigating conversations with your cliquey peers — and all in swimsuits, no less.

“Eighth Grade,” directed by Bo Burnham and starring the brilliant Elsie Fisher as Kayla, pays minute attention to the drama of the female, suburban, middle-school experience, leaving no cringe-worthy stone unturned. In Anna Meredith’s emotive soundtrack, we hear the booming, overwhelming feeling of blood rushing to Kayla’s ears as she catches sight of her crush in class, and feel the rising choke of anxiety in our collective chests as Kayla approaches mean girls in the hallway to say hello.

Elsie Fisher, who herself just graduated eighth grade last spring, plays Kayla, a lonely 13-year-old girl who walks through crowded school hallways with eyes fixed firmly on the floor and was voted “Most Quiet” in her eighth-grade class. Post-it notes cover her bathroom mirror, where she painstakingly applies makeup — “Go get ‘em!” and “Small talk practice — go! NOW!” In her free time, Kayla makes inspirational YouTube videos — “Being Yourself,” “How to Put Yourself Out There,” “How to Be Confident” — an obvious irony, given that she has yet to take her own advice.

“Eighth Grade” bears all of the markings of Burnham’s affection for large, emotional sonic landscapes and introspective humor. The 27-year-old rose to fame 10 years ago when his facetious, clever YouTube songs — such as “i’m bo yo” or “New Math” — went viral. From there he went on to design and perform two highly-choreographed stand-up comedy routines, which blended music and light spectacles with catchy pop songs full of meta overtones.

With this movie, Burnham demonstrates maturity and a capacity for highly sensitive, funny storytelling. A child of the Internet himself, he spent hours watching YouTube videos of 13-year-old girls to write this script. Informed by Elsie Fisher’s firsthand experience, “Eighth Grade” gives an honest glimpse into a new generation of tweens — most of whom have now grown immersed in Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram (and understand that, in a divergence from even my generation of late ’90s kids, nobody uses Facebook anymore).

“No one’s really narcissistic on the Internet. We’re all just trying to fit in, I think,” Fisher said in an interview with The View. In middle school, when young adults are growing up and trying on and casting off new identities like clothing, the social-media-inspired push to perform a virtual personal identity becomes all the more alluring and addictive.

In the film, Kayla’s social media addiction also works in concert with her own anxiety. Burnham, who has spoken publicly about his anxiety and depression, has been outspoken about the often-destructive relationship between Internet use and mental health. No scenes better communicate the ironically isolating effects of apps premised on interaction between “followers” and friends than those where Kayla sits alone in her darkened room, the bright blue light from her phone illuminating her young, earnest eyes as they flit anxiously from one post to the next.

Many reviewers — especially adults, many of whom are parents themselves — have emphasized the importance of “Eighth Grade” for parents, so that the parents might learn a bit of what their own selfie-obsessed children are going through. At the same time, critics have been bemoaning the movie’s R rating, which prevents anyone under the age of 17 from seeing the film without a parent or guardian. Recently, A24, which made “Eighth Grade,” hosted 51 free screenings across the United States which did not enforce the 17-year-old R rating rule.

I felt the movie was critically important for a range of ages — especially because I recognize the anxiety-ridden Kayla in myself. “I’m really, like, nervous all the time,” Fisher admits in the film, with a vulnerable and heart-wrenching delivery. Her experience cuts to the heart of the terror of middle school — the uncertainty, the unfriendliness, the unknowable and gaping future of high school ahead. Middle school “is scarier than you think,” Burnham told NBC. “But the kids are stronger than you think.”

“I think you’re really cool,” Kayla’s loving, if a bit overbearing father (Josh Hamilton), constantly reminds her, as he struggles to figure out how to reach his teenage daughter. Through all the terrifically scary and normal things that Kayla experiences in this movie, her father is the one reassuring constant. “Just ‘cause things are happening right now doesn’t mean they’re always gonna happen,” Kayla says near the end of the film. And, for all of us who have survived middle school, we know that it’s true — it does get better, and it will be OK. At the end of Kayla’s journey, the simple reassurance is one of profound comfort, and hope.

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