How Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade Expresses Vulnerability

How do you create a film that mirrors the adolescent experience when that experience is so fundamentally fraught with inconsistencies and contradictions that any attempt at a logical narrative wind up feeling off-the-mark?

 

Well, mostly, you don’t.

 

Teen film has a reputation for being out-of-touch, shallow, idealistic, overly quirky or overtly unrealistic. Of course there are exceptions to that rule, and of course, those qualifiers aren’t always a negative, but they certainly don’t capture the adolescent experience. Especially not early adolescence, and for a demographic that faces such a strange and vaguely-explosive cocktail of complex emotions, it can be devastating to feel as though your feelings are wrong or different.

 

So, how does one address internal thoughts, feelings and contradictions in such a visual medium?

 

There are likely many ways to answer that question, but it might be most relevant to deconstruct a film which does this exact thing with grace and finesse: Bo Burnham’s debut feature, Eighth Grade.

 

The film follows Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), an awkward and anxious teenage girl who struggles with self-confidence and making friends. Of course the plot itself is simple and bare, and certainly not unique, what is unique is the way in which the film tackles these issues: with unrelenting, unabashed, and absolute vulnerability.

 

The protagonist of the film continuously attempts to portray herself in the same way that teenagers in film are regularly painted, but invariably fails. This is most evident through her YouTube channel, where she gives life advice, often in the form of stories. In these stories, she paints herself as brave, daring, extroverted and more than anything, confident. These narrations are contrasted with footage of her actual life, where she struggles to follow the very advice she so flippantly gives away. It is obvious that she does try, in self-assured bursts, usually preceded and followed by intense anxiousness and doubt.

 

The narration paints a picture of her idealized self, she never comes across as a liar or as being untrue to herself precisely because of these bursts of intense effort: some of which working out beautifully, others failing in unforeseen ways. She speaks in an awkward, bumbling matter, some of which is indicative of her lack of self-confidence, but much of which is showcasing the loud, at times embarrassing ways where she attempts to portray herself as a confident person. Kayla flips back and forth on different topics, she is often unjustly frustrated with her slightly-out-of-touch, yet very loving father.

More than anything, she is human. Her speech is imperfect, her flaws are on display, and she is in a state of near-constant doubt. All of these things can be deciphered through Burnham's script, but the things which make it shine as a film most spectacularly are the visual ways which the film uses to express this vulnerability.

 

There is an attention to detail and realism in this film that is nearly unprecedented: for one, every electronic screen is filmed as is, not edited in later, which is the standard. It’s a detail which is incredibly important to the feel of the film. The lighting on Elsie Fisher’s face in the dark, illuminated only by her phone screen recreates the feeling of thrill, secrecy and isolation which the internet has made so present in the lives of modern teenagers. Likewise, Kayla’s skin imperfections are never entirely covered up by the type of expensive cosmetics regularly used in the film industry. Her clothes mostly fit her, but are often disheveled or strangely matched, and her hair is often left unbrushed. These details are not fixing problems of other films: of course some teenagers have perfect skin, are carefully groomed and entirely fashionable at all times… but many aren't. And the fact that Kayla isn’t, despite this not being a plot point in the film adds a true sense of realism to the character, just like her slightly disheveled bedroom and homey kitchen grounds the characters into the scene.

Of course, the fact that Elsie Fisher is the same age (or at least quite close) as the character she is playing, just as the actors in the supporting roles are, helps the film hold it’s visual consistency, but her remarkable acting chops are what elevate it. Her performance is nuanced and detailed, and incredibly energetic. She seems at times breathless in her hurry to deliver exciting information, and the honesty with which she stumbles, as well as the beautiful and wonderfully awkward way in which she projects false confidence in the scenes where Kayla is filming YouTube videos, draws the viewer into her psyche.

 

Adolescence is odd. It is having the raw energy of a child with weighing expectations, thrown in a brutal class system, early sexual impulses, an underdeveloped sense of reasoning and unshakable, indescribable irritation. It is being an animal in a human-shaped flesh-suit with adult responsibilities and expectations. The discomfort caused by this unique situation creates doubt and vulnerability which one must hide in order to protect themselves from the threatening outside world. That makes it hard to explore, but somehow, Eighth Grade manages to capture a piece of that, with a delightfully open, sweet, touching finish.

 

But don’t take my word for it: go see it yourself. Any good piece of art deserves to be supported.

 

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