Published Jul 17, 2018There's a reason Degrassi Junior High has stood the test of time for hyper-realistic cringe-watching in a way that Beverley Hills 90210 never could — by using real teens, the show captured an incredibly real version of the adolescent experience.
It's a concept comedian Bo Burnham must understand well, because his first full-length feature film is populated with actual 13-year-olds.
The film revolves around Kayla (Elsie Fisher, who shot the project in the summer between grade eight and nine), an impossibly awkward teen who tries to overcome her lack of self-confidence by broadcasting YouTube self-help videos to a viewership of approximately no one. Aside from her dad (an exceedingly warm Josh Hamilton), her main social interactions come from double tapping on Instagram and participating in an endless stream of Buzzfeed quizzes. Despite her confidence on the vlogs, she's voted most quiet in her school's superlatives.
Fed up with her social awkwardness, Kayla's father forces her to attend a poolside birthday party for one of her school's hot popular girls. Because of Fisher's brave, entirely real performance, the awkwardness of the pool party reaches stomach-churning depths. It's one of many moments in the film that will bring you right back to the woozy agony of pre-pubescent insecurity.
Eventually, Kayla tries to take her own advice and put herself out there, trying to muster up charisma with very little success. Eventually, her misadventures — including some brushes with dangerous, toxic masculinity — culminate in a satisfying and heartfelt discovery of self-esteem.
Bo Burnham painstakingly wrote the screenplay for Eighth Grade before bringing it to the screen, with each natural-sounding "like" peppering the students' sentences. That said, Fisher revealed that he left plenty of room for improvisation from his youthful subjects. As such, the social awkwardness on display reaches new heights. Occasionally, the unflinching gaze of pimple-covered preteens begins to feel like a horror film. It'd make the film cringe-worthy if it weren't so damn charming.
A24 has had plenty of success with the teen coming-of-age genre, from The Edge of Seventeen through last year's beloved Lady Bird. Working with relatively unknown actors and taking an unflinching approach to the harsh agony of teen insecurity, Bo Burnham's first film foray is a resounding success. (Elevation)