3 1/2 (out of 4)
Bo Burnham has ascended from bedroom-dwelling YouTube jokester to the most original voice in modern stand-up in what seems like no time at all. His triptych of comedy specials (Words Words Words, what. and Make Happy) are tremendous works of shrewd intellectual comedy and his old teenage raps still hold up pretty well to this day.
That prodigious level of clout behind Burnham's name is what makes Eighth Grade, his first cinematic effort, so perplexing. A fairly straightforward coming-of-age story about a thirteen-year-old girl in 2017 seems just a smidge beyond his capacity to communicate honestly. But while there is little authorship that screams Burnham’s idiosyncratic brand of dense wordplay and cynical, postmodern edge, as a fresh-faced director he has engineered one of the most uncomfortable and strangely thrilling debuts of the decade.
Lead Elsie Fisher is, like most of the cast, a non actor and you can’t help but appreciate the candor in which the performances play out as Burnham’s script is recited. Very few directors or writers would opt for as much blemished naturalism in the delivery of dialogue, especially when it comes to teenagers. Every hiccup, stutter, stammer, faltering and vocal imperfection is maintained, just like in real life. This is an acne and all portrayal of the inconvenient cusp of young adulthood, and Eighth Grade manifests truths that are as universally profound as they are blisteringly awkward and at times piercingly painful.
The idea that other movies have explored themes on identity and similar examinations of individuality (that overarching "human condition") seems like stilted bunk next to the way Burnham – a stalwart critic of social media – has commented on self-image in the digital age. I can see most audience members over thirty finding the post-millennial references and petty middle school problems difficult to relate to, but Eighth Grade is fundamentally about the suffocating effect of untamable social anxiety and how our own inability to truly know ourselves – let alone express what that is – keeps our ultimate potential just out of reach. In the era of Snapchat, Instagram and vloggers, the space between our projected personality and our actual likeness has become unrecognizably obscured.
Burnham unrelentingly picks away at the life or death stakes of girls making their way through grade school adolescence as they part from their innocence piece by piece, willingly or not. There's no indie gloss here like in The Edge of Seventeen or The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Eighth Grade's unflinching veracity already puts it in the leagues of the genre's cult classics like Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Anna Meredith's dramatically overcharged electronic score enhances Burnham's nimble accuracy on the subject of social unease. Featuring moment after moment of cringe-inducing realness, the film is like a suspended panic attack punctuated by strange and primitive examples of embarrassment and elation. Not since Synecdoche, New York have I seen comedy and drama so thoroughly interwoven or the trivial pangs of life illuminated with such authenticity. However Bo's goals are the inverse of Kaufman's seismic ambition – Eighth Grade is instead brimming with introspective, infinitesimal truths.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
The Girl in the
and the Four Realms