Certain associations are damaged with overuse. School, awkward teens, the nuances of young social lives – perhaps it’s all been done before. But then comes Eighth Grade, breezily making those tired tropes new again. The hook is in the bracing modernity of the piece; the young teenage world it portrays happens right now, allowing genuine novelty. It’s more than that, though. There’s an experimentation and elegance that feels of a kind with the new-ness, able to translate experiences of social media and a child’s ever-changing development into something fresh. While it might wind up more of a zeitgeist mood-piece than anything else, it’s still rich and successful in that attempt.
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is a shy, painfully-awkward girl about to leave middle-school and enter high-school. Through the course of the film, she suffers the tribulations of that anxious demeanour; the vacuous hole of Twitter, Instagram, YouTube et al is her means of escape from the social pressures cruelly and inevitably inseparable from these things. Excercising this point, her presence is dominated by a constant claustrophobia. It’s always commendable to see a thoughtful command of a film’s formal elements; shots of Kayla remain tight to her, while shots elsewhere quite distinctly look outwards, sheepishly scanning the tableaus that surround her.
Where the obsessions of post-millenials might seem ripe targets for mockery, this would be too easy
Much the same, it has an apt stylistic exuberance throughout that feels specific to its time: the introduction of her crush is accompanied (each time) with an obnoxious thumping bass, one important phone-call of Kayla’s is framed by a constant bounce as she paces back-and-forth, and a gift-opening ceremony is laid out like a perverse riff on The Last Supper. It toys with its form, finding life in the littlest details. What’s more, there’s always something to be said for a perfect usage of “Orinoco Flow”. The humour is sharp, playing on awkwardness, but empathy and identification is quite clearly with the brushed-past subject.
It’s the two-sidedness of the film that makes it. Where the obsessions of post-millenials might seem ripe targets for mockery, this would be too easy. Instead, Grade takes the apparently-ridiculous and, while not keeping an entirely straight face, tries to understand what it means to those kids. Kayla produces somewhat-mawkish self-help videos on YouTube that seem to help her more than anyone else. They’re placed interstitially throughout the film, underscoring – amidst all the ums and please-like-and-subscribes – genuine attempts at youthful expression. The clumsiness with which she fiddles with all this media is belied by a simple human yearning for acceptance.
Fisher’s central performance is so much a part of this. Her constant, bemused awkwardness is both cringe-inducing and charming, while her presentation betrays genuine willing behind the anxiety. She holds herself with a constant close-guardedness, always tucking arms to chest and often speaking with an uncertain gibber. It’s a constant personal movement that reflects a broader fluidity. The movie doesn’t stick only to one mode, petering out in a charmed haze, but instead reflects the reality of that performance. When the situation demands, it grows sober; if the most innocuous situation is obviously funny, it gains levity. Most importantly, the tone is one of empathetic realism, constructing something that knows itself, despite the natural confusion in its nature.
Which isn’t, unfortunately, to say that it entirely transcends the limitations of the mood-piece. To criticise it for an ultimate lack of ambition seems unfair, but at least part of that sentiment is true. The conclusion crystallizes the entirety of the film as about transition, all open questions and limited answers. It’s not so much a film about actual growth and change, as much as the ever-deferral of them into futurity. The final statement isn’t about the advance of time per se, but instead seems concerned with only the fripperies of the present.
It approaches its subjects with a gentle understanding, while likewise appreciating a considered reality to their now-everyday struggles
Similarly, the denouement itself can’t help but feel sudden and falsely-conclusive; where any assertiveness of Kayla’s previously felt as if she was only glancing around a genuine emotional realisation, she abruptly develops a confidence in a way that should have felt more spaced-out. Still, these are only minor points against a movie that does seem to know well just what it is. That it’s a flighty thing with few real answers is part of the point; Kayla’s journey is one of continued growth and transition, after all. The film doesn’t need to be more than an acutely-observed reflection of this process.
To that end, the film is a success. It’s a delightful observation of a particular time, managing to pay attention to and show genuine interest in cultural peculiarities that might otherwise be dismissed. Taking over-used aesthetic conventions serves it well, making them new with an uncommon zeal. It approaches its subjects with a gentle understanding, while likewise appreciating a considered reality to their now-everyday struggles; Kayla’s teenage angst actually comes from somewhere. As a simple account of a moment, rather than something that might entirely diagnose it, it is powerful. Eighth Grade looks closely at quite what the post-millenial is; rather than judging and condemning, it is instead content only to listen.
Header image by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24