Shut-In Cinema: Eighth Grade

While much of the world is moving beyond lockdowns and disease America soldiers on, overjoyed to keep pretending safety is a political agenda. So many are still in quarantine in an attempt to avoid contracting COVID-19, and they’re relying heavily on film to stay entertained. With this I present to you another installment of “Shut-In Cinema,” a series covering films available on streaming services so all of you can have something to watch. I never reviewed Bo Burnham’s 2018 film Eighth Grade, leaving this not only my chance to talk about it but hopefully to convince those of you that skipped the movie to give it a whirl.

Eighth Grade tells the tale of Kayla Day (Elsie Fischer), an eighth-grader in her final week of school before summer vacation. She does very adorable YouTube videos about confidence and surviving her teenage years despite not doing very well with either. Her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), is doing the best he can to help her and be part of her life but struggles with how to connect with the girl. That’s it, that’s the plot.

The reason I wanted to point this out is to highlight how much of a horror film this is. It’s got an air of gruesome reality to it and openly confronts the viewer with things they may not understand about modern middle school. There is a very unsettling scene that involves an active shooter drill, a thing most modern youth have to go through and something we’ve normalized in an effort to maintain status quo. There’s a horrific sequence in the backseat of a vehicle where nothing happens, at least nothing outside of some really disturbing conversation, but the idea behind it left a raw wound stinging many audience members I was sitting with. It’s not….sexual assault, at least not completely, but it borders on that scenario and is something that a thirteen-year-old girl could have stuck in their head for years to come. The entire time I thought about what a wonderful horror director Bo Burnham would be, the light and setup absolutely stunning to look at. He even manages to direct a fantastic panic attack, one that is truly scary to witness.

Beyond the horror elements we get a lot of great comedy. Fischer has great timing and delivery, paired with some real dorks to go back and forth, and she takes every bit of the performance with such sincerity that you often forget that she was truly a fifteen-year-old kid just getting started. She would go on to be incredible in season 2 of Castle Rock, a Hulu original anthology series that draws from Stephen King’s fictional multiverse. Fischer and Burnham apparently had a deep understanding on set, with him casting her because she was the only shy teenager pretending to be confident that he auditioned (as opposed to the other 49 kids, who were apparently confident and pretending to be shy). Her entirety was made a part of the character, from the acne to her speech patterns, and it all built an honest and beautiful performance that felt blunt. 

I’m irritated that the people who would have benefited most from the film were barred from seeing it. The film received an R rating for explicit language and sexual content, something modern teens are both completely familiar with, and did not get a chance to see the film until Burnham and distribution company A24 took action. Free all-ages screenings were arranged in every state, allowing for the intended audience to view the film. I had specific names pop into my head as I was watching the film, people I had known growing up, and felt like viewing it would have been a cathartic and positive experience for them. We all swore like sailors when I was growing up. We learned about sex and sexul activity early, but had no context due to the weird and suppressive closed culture we lived in. We all had anxiety and anger and simmering fear, things which are now being insulted as typical Millennial problems. These issues are part of everyday life for kids, and I hope more young adults around that age get to see Eighth Grade and find some education, some solidarity, and some sense of relief.

Holy hell, we didn’t talk about Anna Meredith’s score. This is one of the best ones of that year and made my 2018 Top Ten List. There’s so much in it that matches what Burnham wanted with the thematic elements of the film, mostly due to the fact that Meredith was able to make certain tracks sound like a panic attack. I truly adored it and honestly pop it on with astounding regularity.

Eighth Grade is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, and I hope you give it a shot (although if you cancelled because Bezos is a bastard I won’t hold it against you). And I hope you show your youth. Watch with them, and have a discussion afterward. They’re able to handle it and I think it’d be good for them and you.

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