Eighth Grade

Year: 2018
Production Co: A24
Director: Bo Burnham
Writer: Bo Burnham
Cast: Elsie Fisher, Emily Robinson, Josh Hamilton

I might have reacted very differently to this film had I not seen Norweigan teen dramedy Turn Me On, Dammit! very soon after. It's hard to put a finger on exactly why and which scenes, exchanges or characterisations made me feel this way (and it's notable how that film is primarily concerned with teenage sexual urges whereas Eighth Grade isn't), but it seemed to epitomise the difference between the American and European sensibilities towards youth and sexuality.

European cinema is happy to acknowledge that teenage girls get horny and even poke gentle-natured fun at it whereas in America the topic is so highly politicised the public and artistic discourse around it veers between terrified embarrassment and societal hysteria.

But before I'd even seen Turn Me On, Dammit! there was a scene in Eighth Grade that particularly struck me, where the young heroine Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is in a car with a boy and things turn sexual.

She wants nothing to do with it, trying to stay cool and laugh it off but nearly jumping out of her skin with terror. When he takes his shirt off and invites her to do the same Kayla is barely brave enough to refuse, but it doesn't stop things turning vaguely threatening.

As the writer and director, Bo Burnham obviously didn't want to make a story that commented upon or even included something about how so many young girls face sexual violence, and that's fine. Me thinking he missed an opportunity to comment upon something so pivotal to the experience of so many people doesn't lessen his actual storytelling intent.

But when the guy puts his shirt back on, telling her that he was giving her the chance for her first time to be special and good and now she's missed it, it still felt like an essentially American viewpoint, swerving away at the last second so as not to acknowledge that teenage girls have a sexuality.

Contrast that with Turn Me On, Dammit!, which opens with a girl Kayla's age laying on her kitchen floor with her hand down her pants masturbating to a phone sex line, and the difference between depicting/acknowledging young female sexuality is stark.

But rather than belabour the point throughout the entire review, I have to once again acknowledge that Eighth Grade isn't concerned with a young woman's sexual awarness but her whole problem with trying to fit in.

To begin with, the casting of Fisher is a middle finger to years of Hollywood wisdom that would normally cast a 32 year old supermodel in this role. Fisher is the millions of kids we all went to school with or were ourselves. She walks with a self-conscious slouch, has zits on her face, and when she's giving life advice to her YouTube followers (as we first meet her doing) she's far wiser, more animated and more confident than she is in real life.

But aside from the casting and characterisation of Kayla, the story itself is kind of slight. She has a crush on class hottie Gabe and, after finding herself face to face with him at a party the grade Mean Girl has been forced to invite her to, Kayla does something uncharacteristic and volunteers to sing karaoke.

The film seems to be saying that she gets these flourishes of bravado every now and then (another one comes later when she bails the Mean Girl up in the hall and takes her to task for the way she mistreats people) and acts on them, knowing they're the only thing that will give her the life she expounds on YouTube.

But because this is an indie drama and not a studio teen comedy, they don't exactly transform Kayla's life and bring her out of her shell and she continues to muddle through school.

Another set piece concerns a high school orientation program where they accompany older students through their days to learn what to expect. Her partner, Olivia, is so perky and friendly you spend the whole time expecting something to go wrong with the relationship, but instead it comes to represent a bright spot of acceptance and possibility for Kayla (and leads to the ominous shirt-off scene.

There's a single bum note in the character of her father. Because this story is told from the point of view of the teenage protagonist I was dreading the usual trope about how she thinks all parents and adults are idiots who don't know anything and treats them with barely-concealed contempt.

That was there, but in this case it was warranted. Kayla's father Mark is a complete idiot, with no idea of how to even talk to his daughter without sounding like a terrified kid asking for a date, let alone connect with her.

There's even an idea straight out of what would be the big studio teen romcom version of this story where Kayla's new friends comment on the creepy guys who's been watching them from across the food court, Kayla then realising to her horror is her Dad, so concerned she's making friends he's spying on her by poking his head around the corners of shop signs and architecture.

There's an indie movie sense of authenticity to Kayla's experience and the plot doesn't come in a neatly wrapped bow – the denouement after all Kayla's bluster, fear, self-doubt and hope is merely that it will continue as she grows up and how that's okay.

It's the exact version of this kind of thing you'd expect from a production company of A24's creative standing and the plaudits around the acting were deserved. Plenty of it will remind you of your own teenagerdom and – the moronic father notwithstanding – you'll feel a lot of empathy for Kayla herself rather than roll your eyes at yet another entitled brat who doesn't realise that while she has food on the table her life isn't actually hell on Earth.

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