Straight As: Awkward, Agonising & Amazing
Do you remember how terrible it was to be a teenager? If no, then you may have gotten lucky. For most, it’s a time of great self-doubt and embarrassment, with a sudden self-awareness but no idea what you should be doing. Comedian Bo Burnham tackles this with his debut feature Eighth Grade, capturing minuscule horrors and making them large, and it’s finally been picked up for wider release in the UK.
The film focuses on 14-year-old Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher, who is navigating the closing year of middle school with a weight of social anxieties. There’s little more to the story than that, but this is a film which knows that what is happening is a big deal for Kayla. Making friends, being liked, being popular, feeling like you belong, embarrassing parents, acne – it’s all the little things which makes that feeling of being a teenager crushing.
Fisher gives a perfect moody but earnest performance of a young girl low confidence – being only 16 herself – but with the urge to try more. Kayla’s goal, as she tries to project in her vlog, is to be more confident and enjoy life, but she wrestles with mountainous molehills such as talking, eye contact and even the way she carries herself when she walks. The performance captures the exquisite, heavy burden teenagers give themselves at that time in life, more notably for girls, where a sense of self comes rushing in and only a handful can truly manage it.
‘You’ll laugh due to unexpected absurdities, and they’ll be times when you’ll want to shrivel up and die.’
You can’t help that feel the struggle of being a teenager is exacerbated by the addition of social media these days, but this film simply adds it into the mix as a party to the anxieties. Social media doesn’t take a bashing, and it seems to say Kayla’s struggles would be just as weighty without it because it’s just a medium through which she piles the pressure onto herself. She has a normal father who is goofy, but ultimately loves her and tries to respect her privacy, despite not understanding the changes which are occurring – so no parent-bashing either. Her father is kind and well-meaning throughout, and even admits he has done nothing to contribute to the good person she is.
The comedy in Eighth Grade comes not from the set-up of low-brow gags like in the classic “teen comedy” sense, but from the observation of true awkwardness. From a teacher who ‘dabs’ to Kayla’s awkward vlog sign-off – whether you understand what’s happening or not – it manages to be humorous by bringing you in close to the small-but-very-important things happening in a teenagers life. You almost miss the larger issues which teenagers might face, much in the same way the teens themselves do, such as the practice drill for a school shooting.
A key scene in delivering that sense of importance to small events is a pool party, where kids play and parents cook food, but Kayla experiences it almost like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, slow, torturous and panic-inducing. In a smart move, Burnham doesn’t put Kayla underwater for long, avoiding the now cliched imagery of lost souls find quiet submerged from their problems, instead, she almost cowers under the ledge of the pool, hoping she’s done enough to fit in.
This could have taken a knife to modern teenagers but offers them up, not as one character describes them “a different generation, wired differently”, but as a generation plagued by the same sweet insecurities you probably had. Eighth Grade, to its credit, never gets overly dramatic or far-fetched. Everything is within reason, making the funny stuff hilarious and the sombre moments more galling.
There are moments where you’ll laugh due to unexpected absurdities, and they’ll be times when you’ll want to shrivel up and die with embarrassment (both because of, and for, Kayla). But most of all, you know this film has done a bloody good job when you come away with sympathy for teenagers. Think yourselves lucky if you never grew up with Snapchat and Instagram to add to the horror of your teenage years.