“Let me sail, let me sail, let the Orinoco flow.
Let me reach, let me beach on the shores of Tripoli.
Let me sail, let me sail, let me crash upon your shore.
Let me reach, let me beach far beyond the Yellow Sea.”
These opening lyrics to Enya’s 1988 song, “Orinoco Flow,” are forever embedded in my memories of the high school drama club that saved my life. Prior to a big performance, our director would guide us in warm-ups set to this ethereal tune, utilizing choreography inspired by Twyla Tharp. We were instructed to sit on the floor and imagine that we each had a ball of paint on the tip of our nose. Surrounding each of us was an invisible bubble, and we proceeded to paint it, first with our noses, then our fingers, toes and—while standing—our entire bodies. So immensely silly was this spectacle that it caused our self-consciousness to vanish, as we all partook in it with a shared conviction. When we walked—or rather, writhed—through the otherwise empty theater, we were encouraged to look each other in the eye, and it was this sense of connection that proved to be the most powerful in the exercise, breaking through the usual barriers teenagers rely on to shield their vulnerability.
Kayla, the heroine of Bo Burnham’s astonishing new film, “Eighth Grade,” has no such outlet. Though her graduation from junior high is only one week away, every second in that soul-crushing environment feels like an eternity. So she turns to the world that didn’t exist when I was her age, the one that beckons to her from the cool glow of her laptop and phone. “Orinoco Flow” materializes on the soundtrack as Kayla loses herself within an online bubble both stimulating and numbing. She may keep her gaze fixed on the ground while standing up to mean girls, yet Kayla is entirely comfortable when making eye contact with her viewers—whomever they may be—during the videos she films for her YouTube channel. Her topics for discussion are designed to empower kids her age to “be themselves,” a task that is profoundly difficult when navigating the hormonal minefield of adolescence. Like most eighth graders, Kayla has acne, a physique not at all in line with the emaciated models glorified on magazine covers, and is voted “Most Quiet” among her class in a maddeningly ill-conceived student poll orchestrated by clueless adults. (Another category is “Best Eyes.” What is this, the People’s Choice Awards?!) Reeling from their own mounting insecurity, students in these three torturous grades are desperate to make themselves feel superior over others, and since Kayla also happens to be a sensitive individual, she is labeled a pariah by her peers. Boy can I relate.
Burnham may only be five years my junior, but the time in which he came of age was exponentially different from my own. I had no cell phone prior to college, and found escapism through recording radio shows for an audience comprised entirely of myself. Sandwiched in between my sketches were songs from films that I would record via a microphone plugged into my boom box. One evening, I was taping David Bowie’s catchy anthem “Underground,” which plays in full over the end credits of Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth.” Halfway through the song, my parents interrupted the recording by calling me upstairs for dinner. “I can’t come upstairs right now!” I hollered out at the precise moment Bowie sang the following lyrics: “It’s only forever/Not long at all/Lost and lonely/That’s underground.” If those words don’t encapsulate the hell of junior high school then, frankly, nothing does, and that is what Burnham understands so very well. There is perhaps no better person who could make this film, considering Burnham first garnered a global audience after uploading his comedic content to YouTube when he was still a teen. One of his satirical songs, released a decade ago, sublimely articulates the angst of a high school party, while his brilliant 2013 one-man show, “what.”, appropriately begins with an awkward bout of “prolonged eye contact.”
Now, in his directorial feature debut, the 27-year-old Burnham has made the film I have been yearning for ever since I was subjected to the humiliation of junior high. It may be the most bracingly honest portrait of early adolescence since Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” though no matter how squirm-inducing the film gets at times, it never comes off as misanthropic. The writer/director honors his heroine by refusing to play her feelings for laughs. As portrayed by 15-year-old Elise Fisher, an actress previously best known for voicing Agnes in the “Despicable Me” films, Kayla emerges as one of the most compelling and vividly realized movie characters I’ve ever seen. My heart broke every time the camera lingered on her face—untouched by an artificial Hollywood sheen—as she struggled to contain her embarrassment behind an expression of optimism. Burnham makes us feel the throbbing beat of her pulse as she steps outside in a bathing suit for a pool party where she is less than welcome. Time and again Kayla proves to be far bolder than her more popular peers, attempting to engage them in conversation as they hide sheepishly behind their dumb phones. She even remains strong while repelling the sexual advances of an older boy, as he proceeds to guilt her by claiming that he “was only trying to help” prepare her for high school. When Kayla finally has a joyful get-together with a classmate, Gabe (Jake Ryan of “Moonrise Kingdom”), who dilutes the tension by quoting “Rick and Morty,” the moment arrives like a cathartic release.
Nothing angered me more as a teen than high school movies that failed to take my pain seriously. Despite its memorable soundtrack, “Grease” was a sanitized nostalgic fantasy populated by adults with a troubling case of arrested development. Even films I adored, such as “Dead Poets Society,” contained stereotypical nerds with thick glasses, ever-present allergies and zero social skills. “Eighth Grade” doesn’t have an ounce of condescension, and the laughter that it generates—which is plentiful—arises out of recognition rather than ridicule. (Fisher’s under-the-breath delivery of “Who cares?” while forcing a banana into her mouth is uproarious.) Burnham avoids any hackneyed melodramatic plot developments because he’s well aware that the life of a middle schooler is dramatic enough. Of course, no honest film about junior high could be made without it getting slapped with an R rating by the MPAA for—in this case—“language and some sexual material.” What the ratings board, in their famously limited wisdom, appear to have forgotten is that junior high itself is rated R. No parent, teacher or guardian can prevent a sixth grader from rapidly losing their innocence bred in elementary school as they enter a volatile community preoccupied with puberty and four-letter words. This transition might be less extreme if schools simply housed grades kindergarten through eighth grade under the same roof, a prime motivator for students to be better role models. It’s so easy to feel detached from the rest of existence while imprisoned in junior high, and every single person currently enrolled in it is entirely of age to see this movie. This is a rare instance in which sneaking a purchase with a fake ID could prove beneficial to your mental health.
As grueling as my middle school years were, Burnham’s film illuminates just how lucky I was to be among the last classes to come of age prior to the rise of the internet. Whereas I could periodically find sanctuary within a stable home life, social media forces young people to constantly be hyper-aware of their appearance and popularity (it’s not for nothing that Kayla’s easily cracked phone eventually draws blood). We’ve become so accustomed to the oft-heard pleas of “subscribe to my channel” that it’s easy to overlook the bottomless reservoir of need reverberating within them. How valued can middle schoolers really feel when they must participate in school shooting drills administered with an enraging sense of normalcy? I only had fire drills and bus evacuations to contend with at my school, though kids regularly beat each other to a pulp during “recess” periods. Students were spat out onto a dingy blacktop with nothing to do but antagonize those not prone to bullying. These are the years where attentive parenting is utterly essential, and Kayla is fortunate enough to have a father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who has all the empathy and understanding of the equally wonderful single dad in Lukas Dhont’s great Belgian film, “Girl.” Both men may exasperate their daughters with their persistent prying, yet there is nothing malicious about their intentions. When Mark’s words finally register for Kayla during a lovely sequence set around a campfire, they affirm her sense of belonging in the world. As he tells his daughter, “You make me brave,” I couldn’t help agreeing with him. There is nothing braver than an eighth grader who dares to be human.
Last year, I interviewed a YouTuber named Alexis G. Zall who spent her adolescence making videos—oftentimes once a week—while displaying a tireless creativity and wit that left me awe-struck. Zall told me that when she was a little kid, she would end up crying whenever she was in public. After consulting the advice of their pediatrician, her parents got her involved in activities where she would be interacting with other kids. After excelling in gymnastics, a triumphant school play in sixth grade led Zall to pursue acting, and YouTube turned out to be an ideal platform. Her endearingly sardonic onscreen persona embodies the same inspirational zeal that Kayla strives for in every video. “I think children and the youth of today and tomorrow have so much more power and so much louder of a voice than even they realize,” Zall told me. “It doesn’t matter your age. You can always make a difference and a positive impact. That’s one of my favorite parts about social media. It gives you the ability to share a positive message. You can show people that they’re not alone in the things they’re going through. None of us are ever alone because we’re all having the same human experiences together.” Few films have echoed this truth as beautifully, as insightfully, as masterfully as “Eighth Grade.” It is cinematic perfection.
“Eighth Grade” opens today in Austin, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto and Washington D.C., and will hopefully open everywhere else on planet Earth in the very near future.
Bo Burnham is scheduled to do post-screening Q&As in Chicago on Saturday, July 21st, following the 5pm show at Century Evanston, the 7:30pm show at Landmark Century and the 8:30pm & 9:10pm shows at AMC River East 21. Gucci!