Bo Burnham has written and directed a gem of a movie about coming of age in modern times. I thought it was a sweet, sad and very funny look at the life of a modern teenager and how it might actually not be all that different from your own past experience. I highly recommend it.
Elsie Fisher stars as Kayla, a 13 year-old daughter of a single dad who is trying his best to be there for her but, of course, he’s nothing but a source of embarrassment. She is of the smartphone generation and the recurrence of faces lit by digital screens was a motif I could not help but notice. What’s so great about the film is the relatability. I was 13 in the late 80s, a very different time, yet I can fully identify with all of the awkwardness and angst of trying to fit in while also standing out. It is a bewildering time, and I’m not sure technology has the influence some people of my generation and older think it does. The awfulness of being thirteen is probably universal, regardless of time or place. That was certainly the impression I got watching this film.
The movie has a really wonderful tone of polarization. Throughout the film we see these kids who are either clueless about how uncool they are or massively overcompensating for it. Many times the music works marvellously as either a counterpoint to what we’re seeing or a huge amplification. One of my favourite scenes involves Kayla going to a pool party (where she is so dreadfully embarrassed about appearing in a bathing suit that she almost has a panic attack in the bathroom while getting changed) and the shot is of her standing in the window looking at everyone frolicking and the music is this hilariously overdone electronic number that feels like the worst parts of a rave and a circus combined.
The casting of Elsie Fisher is easily my favourite part of the movie. She feels like a completely genuine 13 year-old with slightly wonky teeth, bad skin and bad posture, not one of the 25 year-old models who usually get the part. She’s the most endearing character I’ve seen in ages and really just wonderful. I understand Bo Burnham made a point of auditioning real teenagers, not necessarily actors, and the result is a really believable supporting cast who aren’t just clichés.
There are some dark moments and some sad ones which help give the movie more dimension than just a series of gags and jokes, but it never gets too dark. For example, one scene shows the kids in school doing a practice drill to prepare for the event of a school shooting, but it is played for laughs by having the kids as indifferent to it as a fire drill. There was only one moment in the movie that made me feel actually uncomfortable, as opposed to amusedly uncomfortable, which is the currency the movie is dealing in all the time, but that is not a criticism. Without giving anything away, I think the scene played out just the way it should have and in a way I was grateful for it even though I felt for a moment that it threatened to pull the whole movie down.
I really liked 8th Grade a lot. It’s a really sweet coming of age comedy that shows how being a teenager today is probably not all that different from the way it was when I was a teenager. Elsie Fisher’s Kayla is the most refreshingly charming awkward movie teen I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend it if you want to laugh and maybe shed a tear or two at its sensitivity. Beautiful.