Eighth Grade, a movie about adolescents, is like an adolescent: energetic, emotional, and not quite as interesting as it thinks it is. The filmmaking debut of musical comedian Bo Burnham follows a week in the life of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an eighth grader, as she scrolls through her phone, snaps at her dad, goes to the mall, resents the popular kids, and does other things middle schoolers do. The tone is hyper-realistic, eschewing big plot arcs for slice-of-life moments of truthfully awkward dialogue and conjuring a slowness that can turn from comfortable to painful whenever Burnham needs it to. It’s an impressively affecting recreation of the terrors and embarrassments of the early teen years. To watch it is an enjoyable yet uneasy experience, defined by stomach-churning recognition of all-too-familiar moments from one’s past.
But the movie’s commitment to realism is not so strong as to prevent it from having some cinematic fun here and there. The sexy theme music afforded to Aiden (Luke Prael), the boy Kayla has a crush on, is one hilarious example. There’s also a comically melodramatic montage of the cool kids Kayla fears hanging out by a pool, and plenty of other moments that speak to Burnham’s medium versatility. This isn’t a stylistically stunning movie (the lighting and color palette are functional, not expressive or beautiful), but there’s enough going on to affirm that Burnham is capable of telling jokes through audiovisual material, not just through words. Eighth Grade is often very funny, especially when Gabe (Jake Ryan), Kayla’s lovably dorky friend who somehow made me laugh out loud just by moving his arms, is onscreen. Ryan is just one of a generally superb cast that brings multiple levels of humor and emotion to Burnham’s thoughtfully paced script. Fisher is the real standout, especially in the scariest scene, in which the audience is always one excruciating step ahead of Kayla; she brings her expertly crafted awkwardness into a situation of higher stakes, and the result is unsettling both for its panic-inducing tension and for its political timeliness.
Where I wish Eighth Grade had gone further is in its treatment of social media, which may seem like a silly complaint to make about a movie that features a smartphone in nearly every scene, depicts a character struggling to build self-esteem in the age of Likes, and overlays the same character’s eyes with the screen of her computer as she scrolls through pictures and videos for hours on end. But quality means more than quantity when it comes to capturing a sociological force as monumental as the smartphone, and I can’t say that anything I just listed made much of an impact on the way I think about the digital culture I inhabit. The movie does not offer internet-conscious formal innovations or proposals for how cinema, as an image-based art form, might contend with the mass circulation of online images on a never-before-possible scale. The recurring motif of Kayla’s homemade self-help YouTube videos is an interesting one, especially when the audio from these videos gets mixed with images from Kayla’s non-digital life, but this can only do so much when, more often than not, the camera functions exactly as it does in the average work of conventional, pre-internet realism: as a window into a coherent physical world. This tried-and-true mode of presentation feels disappointingly unequipped to address the presence of a new world beneath our fingertips.
There is also a conspicuous lack of concern with the psychological ramifications of recent technological innovations, and it’s surprising to see something so crucial ignored by a comedian who got his start on YouTube. I don’t want to be all “have you read that Atlantic article,” but I feel like this movie hasn’t read that Atlantic article. I mean this one, from last year, which details how smartphones have basically overhauled every single aspect of how today’s kids and teens live their lives. This is an enormous, generation-spanning shift of lifestyle, and it’s the shear breadth of the change that Eighth Grade leaves out. For all its commitment to rugged realism, the movie indulges in a few cliches, the most upsetting of which is the tired “we’re the misunderstood geeks and all the popular kids are superficial assholes!” narrative, which feels all the more insensitive when the popular kids in question are so young. It is impossible to capture a generation-wide cultural transformation when you’re painting 99% of the relevant generation as caricatured, unfeeling foils to an outcast hero. The sad truth that Eighth Grade misses is that all the cool kids who are mean to Kayla, the ones Burnham plays for laughs without ever exploring their emotional lives, are just as deep in the throes of smartphone culture as Kayla is; they, too, are at risk of potentially devastating mental health consequences.
All of this calls into question the purpose of Burnham’s note-perfect, slice-of-life, unstylized hyper-realism. At the end of the day, all of the perfectly timed pauses and dialogue quirks in the world won’t necessarily add up to an insightful view of the culture we live in. And given the presence of recent movies like Get Out and Sorry To Bother You, outlandish fantasies which still manage to get to the very heart of our present societal situation, it’s hard not to wonder: what’s the point of realism if you’re not being real?