Director: Bo Burnham
Writer: Bo Burnham
Cinematographer: Andrew Wehde
Producer: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Lila Yacoub, and Christopher Storer
by Jon Cvack
Next to Hereditary (2018), this is one of the most successful word of mouth films to come out this year. I had first hear about it earlier in the winter during Sundance, expecting the usual quirky indie film involving the “weird but hilarious” parents, the dry-witted best friend, and the underwhelming, light hearted plot that often drives the genre; made all the more suspicious when I saw that former YouTuber Bo Burnham wrote and directed the piece.
I had gotten my start in Los Angeles working with YouTubers. I worked at Maker Studios which was one of the earliest and most successful digital media companies that would go on to sell to Disney for nearly a billion dollars (no, I didn’t get any of this). What started as a lean production company creating content for about half a dozen YouTubers blossomed into over five hundred employees, acquiring over 55,000 channels and producing content for nearly a hundred of these channels. We worked with successful channels such as Good Neighbor whose Dave McCarey, Kyle Mooney, and Beck Bennett would go onto SNL (and McCarey going on to get engaged to Emma Stone), while other channels - determined they’d achieved similar, if not higher success - went on to crash and burn.
While there were a few great talents and entertainers, the vast majority were extremely difficult to work with, either because they’d never collaborated before (creating all their content on their own), or possessed egos so large that they treated most of us like garbage, no matter how little we were paid versus the six to seven figures they were taking home. I’ve long considered writing an account of the experience, as the situation was so absurd that I, at times, struggle to believe that any of it actually happened; ranging from the people I met to the things we had to make. It was a mixture of what old Mtv felt like combined with the company politics from The Social Network. Ultimately, I grew bitter with many of the talents, as it was clear that beneath their success was a strong insecurity that they protected by an inflamed sense of worth.
Aside from the frustration of my professional experience was the cringeyness of seeing so many others attempt to replicate these social media stars; launching their own vlogs where they offered their thoughts on all things Life - boys, friendships, relationships, success, etc. I’ve known about half a dozen people who have started motivational vlogs, hoping to become a type of Tony Robbins, while others simply create banal videos about their day to day lives, hoping that they too could make their living in the ways their social media heroes have. What you realize is that, for as little interest as I have in popular and professional influencers, the successful ones, like any entertainer, have a particular charm and inherent talent in making the mundane entertaining; leaving most aspiring vloggers to confront the fact that they’re just not engaging enough.
Eighth Grade opens with Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) vlogging about how to be a more confident person; offering all of the empty platitudes that any inexperienced and socially isolated thirteen year old would provide. The vlog then cuts and beneath the filter, we see a chubby, acne-laden teenager, completely addicted to social media.
She heads to school where she’s in her final week of eighth grade. During an assembly, the principal announces multiple student body awards - Most Attractive, Most Talkative, Most Funny, and Most Quiet, which Kayla ends up winning, to then be whisked away to another classroom where her and the other winners get a first glimpse into the boxes they made in sixth grade for their future eighth grade selves. Kayla finds her marked with “To the Coolest Girl in the World” pasted in glitter letters across the top; inside of which are the sundreys of any middle schooler, except for a strange Spongebob toy that piques her interest and will come into play later. Kayla then looks up to her crush Aiden (Luke Prael), in which an awesome techno score lights up, overwhelming the scene and taking us away from the traditional “Dream Weaver” that typically plays over these types of moments. Later that day, while heading home, Kayla’s popular classmate, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), is picked up by her mom who invites Kayla over for a pool party for Kennedy’s birthday; embarrassing Kennedy in the process.
At home, Kayla is your average teenager; completely uninterested in her single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who’s hoping for any bit of conversation; forced to have to watch Kayla glued to her phone with her headphones on. Again, Burnham provides a fantastic use of sound, where in roaring fashion, we see Kayla scrolling through Instagram and Snapchat while playing upbeat pop soundtracks before her dad finally grabs her attention and they share an awkward conversation; in which the dad struggles to get a word in without Kayla cutting him off, even when he asks for just a minute before she responds simply to say he’s proud of what she’s done with her videos; failing to get a couple seconds before she screams yet again, then returns to her phone. Similar scenes have been done this countless times before, with the teens lasered into their phones or television, the parents attempting to talk and facing their kid’s volatile tempers, but somehow each individual element felt fresh, adding up into a unique and heartbreaking moment. Although we know Kayla struggles to make friends or even talk at all at school, she has no problem scolding her dad for wanting to have the slightest interaction.
The next day, Kayla has her dad drop her off to the pool party. The camera follows her from walking up to the door, greeted by Kennedy’s mom who subtly expresses her disappointment that Kayla’s father isn’t coming in, down through the extravagant house, and out into the backyard where all the popular kids are hanging out and having a wonderful time. It’s the film’s most brilliant moment, as I was immediately taken back to similar experiences; fortunately not being invited by a parent so much as having only one friend amongst the popular kids, knowing all the other kids and knowing they knew me, wondering if they thought I should feel privileged to attend, and myself wondering if I should feel privileged to attend, then realizing that beyond some friendly hellos there was little else to talk about other than to laugh and offer single word responses to the inside jokes and banter they all shared.
I honestly squirmed in my chair as Kayla made her way downstairs, knowing that none of the kids wanted her there, and that she knew most of the kids didn’t want her there, and still she kept going; making me both sympathize with all of the weird people I knew like Kayla back in school, and also recalling how awkward it was when they attempted to force themselves into social situations. She then dives in the pool, fortunately greeted by one of the most memorable supporting characters since Paul Dano in Prisoners (2013), the socially inept and likely autistic, Gabe (Jake Ryan), who arrives in a swim mask, challenging Kayla to a breath holding contest, and allowing Kayla’s own weirdness seem pale in comparison.
Hours later, as everyone heads inside to play a Karaoke game, Kayla heads off to a different room, begging for her father to come pick her up. She’s approached by Aiden and he grabs her phone, asking why she’s not hanging out with everyone else; prompting Kayla to walk into the family room, grab the microphone, and sing her heart out during a karaoke song; in which Burnham practices incredible restraint; avoiding another all out cringey scene by letting us watch her sing. Instead, we listen to her vlogging voice over, recounting an alternative history of the events, encouraging her viewers to put themselves out there and have confidence, as they never know what could happen.
Continue to part 2...
BELOW: A tale of two realities
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