Cinema rarely shows an understanding of the impact of social media on our lives. Often reduced to plot devices, films find it difficult to truly grasp our relationship with the likes of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Step forward then former Youtuber star and now award-winning director Bo Burnham with the sensational Eighth Grade.
The film focuses on Kayla, an awkward thirteen-year-old in the final weeks of middle school. Living with her single dad and seemingly absent of any close friends, Kayla nevertheless seeks to push herself out into the world, both real and virtual, and make the most of this time of change.
At the centre of Eighth Grade is one of the best performances of recent years. Elsie Fisher's turn is heartbreakingly hopeful whilst giving us access to the anxiety the swirls underneath the surface for this fourteen year old. When the camera stops on her face we see a wealth of emotions flicker across it, not dissimilar to Olivia Colman in The Favourite. Around Fisher, there is an ensemble of teens who have nuanced, naturalistic turns, eked out perfectly by Burnham. The film is noticeably absent of inspiring adult figures. Josh Hamilton is endearingly low key as Kayla's dad, transitioning from relatively useless to a quiet figure of strength. What teachers we do see are more likely to dab or say "lit" then they are offer some kind-of concrete advice for our hero. But that's not really what the film is about. This is Kayla's story, and it is Fisher's outstanding performance that powers this through.
The impact of Eighth Grade can't be overstated, and at times it threatens to overwhelm the audience. There are scenes which feel lifted from horror films, while others tip close to melodrama, but pull back. You'll find yourself squirming in your seat at the brutal honesty on display, as well as the horrific reality the film taps into. Burnham's nuanced directing and writing is accompanied by Andrew Wehde's crisp cinematography and Anna Meredith's outstanding score (which might be one of the best of recent years). There are numerous moments where the technical prowess marries together to dazzle the audience. But really, the strength of Eighth Grade is felt on a deeply human, emotive level. Burnham clearly has a deep fondness for his protagonist, and shows a necessary restraint that prevents proceedings from becoming too dark, offering hope in the final moments.
Eighth Grade is equal parts comedy, horror and tragedy, crafting a powerful, nuanced look at the role social media plays on our lives, in particular for those growing up within the parameters of these platforms. You'll laugh, you'll cringe, you'll stare agog at the cinema. The film beats you into submission before offering a glimmer of hope to lift you up. Eighth Grade is a stunning achievement, marking Burnham and Fisher as talents to watch out for.