Monday, September 3, 2018

Unfollowed: Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher as Kayla in Bo Burnham's debut feature Eighth Grade. (Photo: IMDB)

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Joe Mader, to our group.

Bo Burnham’s first feature Eighth Grade has been celebrated as an empathetic, heart-felt look at female adolescence in the age of social media. Credit for his seeming success has gone to the performance of Elsie Fisher as his heroine Kayla. Her face is almost never offscreen during the 93-minute running time, and Burnham’s script is successful at capturing the awfulness, awkwardness, and daily humiliations eighth-graders, and girls in particular, are subject to. But despite the digital morass of posts and likes and follows and heart emojis, and up-to-date scenarios such as active-shooter drills, the movie doesn’t bring much new to past portrayals of tortured teenhood such as John Hughes comedies or even Rebel Without a Cause.

The film takes place during Kayla’s last week of eighth grade. She lives with her well-meaning single dad, Mark, played by Josh Hamilton. (Her mother left them both when Kayla was very young, but Burnham elides the details of how and why.) Kayla likes to make and post self-help YouTube clips about such subjects as “Being Yourself” and “Putting Yourself Out There,” which are lucky to get even a single view. She is lonely and miserable, but in her videos she tries to portray herself as confident and wise. But her inarticulate and meandering speech betrays her. Kayla desperately wishes she could be more at ease, more popular, and not so alone and isolated, and she uses her digital clips as a way to see herself as more than her unhappiness.

The two major plot events are a swim party at a popular girl’s house, who’s forced to invite Kayla due to her mother’s apparent crush on Mark (although nothing comes of this), and a high school “shadow” day, where the eighth-graders are bussed to their next-year’s campus and assigned an upper-class student to trail for the day. The swim party consists of hours of misery followed by a small triumph (more about that later), while the shadow day earns Kayla a true friend in the exuberant Olivia (Emily Robinson), but it’s through Olivia that Kayla has a scary encounter with a high-school boy, who tries to push her sexually through an unwanted game of Truth or Dare. (Nothing truly awful happens, but she is understandably shaken and mortified by the encounter.)

Fisher with Josh Hamilton. (Photo: IMDB)

Fisher is paradoxically at ease in front of the camera even as she portrays a character woefully ill-at-ease in the world, which is good because Burnham has her in close-up for 75% of the movie. However – and this is mostly the fault of the script – we never see anything of Kayla beyond her awkward yearning, her squirm-inducing social striving, and her misery. There’s nothing that makes her take shape as a complete human being in our eyes, nothing that sets her off from her peers, no moments where we see her engaged or impassioned or at ease. Julie Harris’s portrayal of the 12-year-old Frankie Adams in Fred Zinnemann's film of Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding burrowed underneath all that teenage angst so that we knew there was something worthwhile there that would someday shine forth even as she attempted to delude herself and others. (But McCullers gave Frankie a hyper-articulate and poetic sensibility.) Laura Dern’s luminous enactment of a dreamy, impractical high-schooler in the otherwise failed Smooth Talk gave a sense of depth and beauty to all that longing to do and to be. Burnham, in contrast, cuts away to montage whenever a moment might be revealing. At the previously mentioned pool party, Kayla separates herself from the other kids and pleads with her dad to pick her up early, but then bravely decides to perform a karaoke number. Burnham unconscionably shows this in montage, under a piece of instrumental music. We don’t know anything about her performance or how it’s received. Is she at all talented? Is she able to communicate anything through the song, even if the others can’t see it? This could have been crucial to making the audience care about Kayla, but Burnham blows the chance. Similarly, when she returns home hurt and humiliated after the Truth or Dare mishap, Burnham pulls away and the soundtrack kicks in as Mark tries to comfort his daughter, so we have no idea what either of them say and how successful or unsuccessful Mark is in his attempts. And in the supposedly uplifting final act, when Kayla’s on a date with the nerdy Gabe (Jake Ryan), they finally connect over their admiration for the TV cartoon Rick and Morty. Yet we’ve never seen Kayla watch the show or laugh at it. It’s just a clumsy attempt by the screenwriter to make something go right in her life.

Burnham doesn’t believe in establishing shots, so we see every pore of Kayla’s face, but never what her room looks like, what her house looks like, what her school looks like, what her world looks like. Beyond her face and the glowing screens, it’s all generic suburbia. He may think he’s making the point that teens today live entirely online, but of course they don’t. (They may be online way too much, but they do have inner and outer lives away from their devices.) His adults are woefully inadequate and Burnham casts them mostly as fools. The teachers rather cruelly read out the class superlatives at an assembly (Kayla wins "Most Quiet"), a sex-ed video announces that the discussion of “changing bodies” is going to be “lit,” and except for an affecting moment towards the film’s end, Hamilton’s Mark is totally unable to say or do the right thing to help his daughter, ludicrously so. When Kayla is invited to the mall to hang out with Olivia and her friends, Mark clumsily spies on her, and her new high-school friends notice him, a further obvious and avoidable mortification for his daughter. Burnham isn’t any better at portraying the authority figures kids deal with than John Hughes was, although he’s less mean-spirited.

Burnham achieved fame in high school himself through comic YouTube videos that went viral, and from those he built a stand-up and writing career. This may help to explain why he’s as enamored of those glowing screens as his young characters are, and why he avoids sharing the rest of their world with us, but he doesn’t do his characters any favors. He doesn’t relate anything about adolescence that we don’t already know; he just applies a digital aura around his rendering of their lives like fancy icing on a cake made from store-bought mix. We’re meant to view Kayla as brave, as persevering, but because Burnham doesn’t give her an inner life beyond her awkward surface and inner misery, she’s ends up rather dull. There’s a not-bad dramatic idea in Kayla’s use of YouTube to see herself as more than her own misery, but Burnham can’t really see her as more than that, and it’s to the detriment of his cast and his movie.

  Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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