Bo Burnham‘s Eighth Grade (A24, 7.13) deserves all the praise it’s been getting. It’s one of the most intimate, penetrating, real-deal capturings of the dull terror of being 13 years old and more particularly an eighth-grader…God, what a horrible realm to be stuck in.
I suffered through it like everyone else, anxious and unsettled and sullen as fuck, loathing the unceasing social and scholastic demands, hating the jocks and the hot girls who hung with them after school, having to feign interest in algebra and science and suffer the soul-stifling penalty of homework every night and especially despising my pimply complexion, living in a kind of suburban concentration camp and dying for the release of TV, movies and music…anything to escape the horror and just miserable all around.
Things are obviously different for poor Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher, who played Kevin Costner‘s adolescent daughter Jamie in Niki Caro‘s McFarland, USA) but the same drill applies. On top of which she’s quiet and chubby (the word is actually fat) and acne-scarred, and yet reasonably assertive as far as posting a video diary and attending this and that social gathering, painful and awkward as they prove to be. (Thanks in no small part to a pair of cruel bitches who reject Kayla’s offers of friendship.) And sexually curious and intimidated, of course, but with sufficient amounts of smarts and self-respect that keep her from just going along when sexual invitations are offered. She’s no dummy and no pushover, but God, the misery of her condition.
On top of which Kayla’s single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), is caring and gentle and yet astonishingly self-absorbed. Everything he says to her is “will you pay more attention to me?…I worship and love you so much but I wish you would talk to me more…oh Kayla, you’re so very beautiful and special but you won’t let me in…could you possibly change your mind about that?” Asshole! He doesn’t remember despising almost everything about his parents at this age? He doesn’t remember that all you want is to be left alone so you can suffer in your own stew?
When she wants to talk to you, Mark, she will. Just keep paying the mortgage and putting food on the table. The rest will sort itself out.
Before beginning their careers casting directors are required to swear an oath to never hire actors who even vaguely resemble each other when casting parents and children. Moviegoers understand this ridiculous system, of course, and have therefore stopped caring when an actor playing a dad doesn’t even look like he could even be the cousin of the boy or girl he’s playing the parent of. The large-eyed Fisher is moon-faced and sort of Norwegian-looking in a farmer’s daughter sense, and a good 15 or 20 pounds overweight. Hamilton’s face is narrow with smallish, WASPY eyes, and he’s apparently careful about what he eats. Forget family resemblance — these two are from different planets. And yet we’re stuck with them as father and daughter, and having to make it all feed together in our heads.
And yet Fisher is very, very good, which is to say painful to watch. You’re sitting there going “this poor girl…she’s going to have to suffer for another two or three years and perhaps longer, depending on how it goes…she has no choice but to bear the burden.” Your heart goes out but Jesus.
The bottom line is that I respected Eighth Grade more than I liked it. It’s a serious, solemn sink-in, but so oppressive to sit through. Because there’s almost no oxygen in this film. It’s all about oppression. Nobody could hold a candle to my miserable existence at this age, but even I had a little more fun during my eighth-grade ordeal than poor Kayla. I at least had my circle of friends and running around on weekends and my favorite TV shows and whatnot, and the hormonal longings that were exploding at all hours.
I actually don’t want to write or think about this chapter any more. It took me years to recover from it. I didn’t even begin to feel semi-happy about stuff until I hit my mid 20s, and even then it was no picnic.