' ' Cinema Romantico: Eighth Grade

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Eighth Grade

“Eighth Grade” is bookended by both YouTube confessionals and time capsules. There is something of a then and now aspect in these dueling details, the former representing the social media prevalence of our present and the latter, buried in the ground with details meant to be found and interpreted in the future, evoking the past. And that is appropriate because even if writer/director Bo Burnham’s coming-of-age, of sorts, story feels indicative of the time in which it is set, with students forced through active shooter drills, it also feels wholly universal, which is why Kayla (Elsie Fisher) spends an active shooter drill chatting up a cute boy, which I can only imagine probably transpired during Cuban Missile Crisis drills too. Indeed, when Kayla hangs out with a few high schoolers one of them references their generational gap, which probably sounds ridiculous until you remember that everyone – EVERYONE – always feels, no matter their age, old.

The movie encompasses Kayla’s last week of eighth grade, though it is often less a triumphant processional than awkward ordeal. High school is a fertile ground for horror movies, from “Carrie” to “Prom Night”, and “Eighth Grade” is no less apt at demonstrating how the choppy navigation of adolescence is a machine for generating dread. Kayla describes her life experience as akin to the moment before you climb onto a rollercoaster with none of the joy that is supposed to come after you have ridden the ride and disembarked. And that is often how “Eighth Grade” feels, like you are climbing into a rollercoaster car already fearful for the moment when your stomach will drop. This is  most effectively conveyed in a sequence where Kayla musters up something approximating courage to attend a pool party she was grudgingly invited to, walking up the driveway as the camera follows, menacingly, over her shoulder and the piano keys tremble. In the next scene, the camera films from within an actual pool, but this unwilling march, while aqua-free, is straight outta “Jaws.”

That horror is frequently furthered in nothing more than Kayla’s posture, her shoulders slumped, her head down, and Fisher accentuates that awkwardness with deft line readings of variations of youthful slang that are cringingly hysterical in their soft-voiced half-heartedness. Eventually Kayla becomes more comfortable in her own skin and willing to stand up for herself, though even when she does, like confronting the cool girl in school, she cannot bring herself to make eye contact as she does and sort of cuts out before she truly putting a period on speech. If it is funny, it is also evocative of how Burnham resists writing Kayla’s change with obvious flourishes; it is much more halting and incremental, which is to say it is true to life.

Her change is also not tied to a boy. That’s not to say there are no boys, because there’s Aiden (Luke Prael), the piercingly eyed dreamboat. But the music that pulses on the soundtrack whenever he appears betrays that he is merely a fleeting fantasy, and he factors little into her arc. The worthy, winningly weird male opposite, Gabe (Jake Ryan), appears early and then vanishes again until much later, after Kayla actualizes. No handsome boy carries her across the threshold; she does it herself. No, the most pivotal scene involving a boy doubles as the movie’s most harrowing when an older guy gives her a ride home and tries goading her into something she does not want. If it does not plunge as deep into the darkness as you might fear, that’s only because it never becomes physical, instead transforming into an acute, terrifying evocation of mental abuse. “Sorry,” she keeps saying, shockingly earnestly, as if it’s her fault. In this moment, Fisher bodily seems to shrink, evincing how emotionally she is made to feel so small.

Though adults are present in “Eighth Grade”, they are seen exclusively through an adolescent prism, seen in an early shot of Kayla’s principal at the front of a classroom where he is viewed from a camera peering around the backs of the heads of students at their desks. The closest we get to an adult is Kayla’s father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), though we deliberately never spend any time with him on his own. There is a subplot dangled, momentarily, about another mother who seems to possibly be attracted to him, though that is immediately set aside, and, as such, might have been jettisoned altogether. No, Mark is better as an unwilling outsider in his own daughter’s life, brought home in Hamilton playing the part with the air of a soldier tip-toeing around land mines, never quite sure he has a hold on her needs. In fact, when Kayla asks if she can burn something in the backyard, Hamilton has his character comically, hesitantly reply like he knows he’s wading into a minefield.

The backyard sequence finds Mark momentarily opening up and essentially expressing that he loves his daughter for exactly who she is, which might not be a new sentiment but is given such remarkable life not so much in this speech as in the movie’s entire rendering. There’s a little “Lady Bird” here in so much as Kayla is presented as a normal kid. That’s why her YouTube confessionals attract no views; she does not have to become a star to matter. You see that at the birthday party she doesn’t want to attend when she forces herself to perform karaoke. Burnham does not shoot this from the point-of-view of the party guests but with the camera tightly at Kayla’s side, blurring out every background character, a moving visual encapsulation of how change from the inside-out feels.

1 comment:

mercatiwriter@aol.com said...

If you can make it through 8th grade (and sometimes 7th) with your head just about screwed on right, you've done it. The rest is easy.