‘Eighth Grade’ explores the subtle battleground of middle school with heart and tact

Wednesday, August 8, 2018 - 5:57pm

Eighth Grade

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Eighth grade girls can be the meanest, coldest, most frustrating creatures in the world. They can also be the smartest and kindest and coolest. And they only listen to people — their peers, the internet — who tell them the former. And not the people — me, their parents — who tell them the latter.

From there emerges the key irony of Bo Burham’s “Eighth Grade.” Kayla (Elsie Fischer in a knockout debut) follows in the footsteps of her creator and looks for validation, connection and answers on YouTube. Under the light of her desk lamp she waxes, like, poetic on such topics as ”Being Yourself” and “Putting Yourself Out There.” And, naturally, she doesn’t take her own advice.

Instead she slumps and slouches through the last week of middle school, hiding behind her phone screen. It is so hard to watch. Almost a decade removed from my own eighth grade experience and I want to look away as much as Kayla does. Because I can see it all coming. The crushes. The fights. The unique torture that is wearing a swimsuit at a pool party. I felt every beat of “Eighth Grade” in my bones (including that one scene that raised my heart rate higher that any horror movie ever could).

Because eighth grade is a hellscape. It’s full of half-formed humans writhing and fidgeting and attempting, futilely, to pass as adults.

Never is this more apparent than a scene about halfway through the film. Kayla has just been dropped off cool girl Kennedy’s pool party. Kids cover the pool deck: walking in backbends, flipping their eyelids inside out, gorging on cheese puffs all in a physically grotesque and emotionally delicate attempt at socializing. We find terror in the carnival show. Kayla finds it in the emotional vulnerability of simply showing up; of putting yourself out there.

And she does the most beautiful and heartbreaking thing she could do. She puts herself out there, into the pool and in front of the karaoke machine. She lets herself be seen and heard.

Nothing remarkable happens in “Eighth Grade.” It is just the week in the life of a fourteen-year-old girl. The distance of age allows an adult audience to laugh at the everyday tragedies of adolescence. But, Burnham doesn’t use his distance to point and laugh. He doesn’t lean on the kind of big outward displays that plague coming of age dramadies.

Burnham seems to realize that most of the battleground of middle school is mental, the conflict internal. That’s quite the task for a visual medium.

But “Eighth Grade” manages it. The score (done by British Electronic artist Anna Meredith) and cinematography (Andrew Wehde, who first collaborated with Burnham on his Netflix comedy special) work in tandem to create a world that is a psychothriller in one scene and a melodrama in the next.

“Eighth Grade”’s realist core keeps this clever craft work from feeling campy. Kayla is a real girl. This is a real world. With real emotions and real acne. It’s funny and it’s heartbreaking and sometimes it’s really hard to watch, but like the actual eighth grade, the cringes and the squirms are worth it because it reminds you that any girl who survives the hell that is middle school has earned the title of Coolest Girl in the World. And that is pretty Gucci.