Bo Burnham’s debut film Eighth Grade chronicles the low-key horrors of being a teen of the iGeneration
Comedian and former YouTuber Bo Burnham channelled his own anxiety into his debut film. (Supplied: Sony Pictures)
From the offbeat comedies of John Hughes to the campy delights of Heathers and Clueless, teenage angst has typically been rendered on screen with broad strokes.
Eighth Grade, the impressive directorial debut from American comedian (and former YouTuber) Bo Burnham, is not your average teen movie — it’s an unflinching and up-to-the-minute take on those awkward pubescent years.
Foregoing theatrics and musical numbers, the film tracks Kayla — a socially anxious, iPhone-clutching member of the iGen (played by newcomer Elsie Fisher) — through her final week of eighth grade.
A recent graduate of eighth grade herself, Fisher gives a performance that is bracing in its honesty: Kayla keeps her head down as she walks, arms by her sides, swinging slightly; she trips over her own words, speech peppered with “likes” and “ums”.
Director Bo Burnham discovered lead actor Elsie Fisher via a YouTube video. (Supplied: Sony Pictures)
The internet is a refuge for her. She finds it easier to comment on her classmates’ Instagram posts, electro thrumming in her pink earbuds, than talk to them IRL (and many of her classmates exhibit similar tendencies).
While she struggles to speak up at school, at home Kayla makes motivational videos and puts them online. Addressing her laptop camera, she advises her largely non-existent followers, “confidence is a choice”, and encourages them to subscribe to her channel.
Although she doesn’t quite realise it, making these videos is her way of counselling herself — summoning courage for the day’s trials and tribulations via the pretence of pep-talking imagined others.
It’s commendable that Burnham, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, doesn’t attempt to pin technology down as either cause or solution to Kayla’s anxiety.
As research for the film, Burnham (left) watched vlogs by teenagers — specifically searching for those with the least views. (Supplied: Sony Pictures)
As someone who first rose to fame on YouTube as a teenager doing musical comedy numbers in his bedroom, Burnham is no stranger to the online realm, and he approaches the cast of young digital natives — this generation never subjected to the sounds of dial-up — in an almost anthropological fashion; without judgement.
In the 21st century, technology is part of the fabric of growing up — augmenting the loneliness, fear, and discomfort endemic to early teendom, as well as the sense of discovery. Burnham handles the subject matter with a remarkable degree of sensitivity, while maintaining a keen sense of humour about it all.
Sure, he borrows a few stock characters and scenarios from the coming-of-age classics: Aiden (Luke Prael) is the dickhead jock that Kayla has a crush on, although he barely knows she exists; Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) is the bitchy popular girl, who only invites Kayla to her pool party because her mom makes her.
And yet, Eighth Grade quietly thwarts audience expectations by failing to pursue those narrative set-ups to their standard conclusions. Aiden does not ask Kayla out on a date and then cruelly stand her up. Kennedy does not conspire to pull some humiliating prank on Kayla at her party — or in the school cafeteria, or anywhere else.
Nor does the adolescent heroine get a makeover that happens to catapult her into Aiden and Kennedy’s cool milieu.
Burnham says the on-screen spark between actresses Elsie Fisher and Emily Robinson (second from right), playing new friends, was genuine. (Supplied: Sony Pictures)
This is not to say that the week goes by without incident for her — far from it — only that the incidents are not of the momentous, make-or-break-you-socially kind so often seen in other examples of the genre.
Rather than go for big, cheap laughs, Burnham finds absurdity — and authenticity — in the details: the school principal happily dabbing for a room of indifferent 14-year-olds; the neat little rainbow of sauce packets that Kayla’s eccentric friend Gabe (played by an extremely endearing Jake Ryan) lays out for their chicken nugget dinner.
From Kayla’s attempt to chat up Aiden in the middle of a school shooting drill, while he’s crouched under his desk, to the excruciating backseat game of Truth or Dare she plays with an older acquaintance, Eighth Grade is a wryly observed tribute to the low-key horrors of adolescence.
Eighth Grade is in cinemas from January 3.