Children and younger teens do not always get a realistic portrayal in film, or an entirely sympathetic one. When minors are more than background characters, they are often sentimentalised or made pitiable victims (Boyhood, Room, Gifted); given an unnatural level of talent, intelligence, or self-assurance (The Prodigious T J Spivet, The Book of Henry); made into funny, fast-talking mini-adults (Perks of Being a Wallflower, Ferris Bueller); or even made into semi-mythical beings (Moonrise Kingdom, and of course the entire Harry Potter series). That’s one reason a fairly understated comedy like Eighth Grade received the attention it did.
Director and screenwriter Bo Burnham is a former comedian, who had a fair amount of success with material about his experiences in his early teens, mocking his own former struggles and insecurities in a series of honest but funny and recognisable anecdotes. He expanded it into a movie script, changing the central character to a 13-year-old American girl, Kayla (longtime child actress Elsie Fisher). The film follows Kayla through her daily routine over the course of the final week in eighth grade, after which she will move on to the daunting but exciting high school level. Nothing objectively earth-shaking takes place in the course of the film; but Burnham manages to express the feelings, concerns, and inner struggles of a young person in a way that is instantly identifiable, sometimes to the point of making audience members cringe as some universal experiences of youth are unearthed. It is a simple but sensitive and insightful film, funny but sometimes painfully so, featuring a completely believable young protagonist, brought effectively to life by young Elsie Fisher.
Refreshingly, Kayla is a perfectly ordinary girl; not ‘movie ordinary’ but genuinely so. She is nice enough looking, but with a mild case of acne and a bit of baby fat visible when she wears a swimsuit. She is fairly intelligent, but with all the insecurities, giddiness, bad decision making, verbal rambling, and lack of logic usual in a girl her age. Much of the humour is indirectly at Kayla’s expense, but manages to laugh without cruelty, not at one girl’s flaws but at a shared human experience. The ‘warts and all’ presentation of the character is part of the film’s charm, and part of what makes it easy to identify with Kayla.
A recurring technique which allows us to see past the superficial facts about Kayla’s life is the video blog she keeps, a sort of public diary she’s maintained for some time, in which she discusses life’s minor problems and suggests ways of coping. The videos are no better than might be expected from a typical girl of thirteen; but their real value is in showing the audience, between the lines, what Kayla is actually thinking, what has her worried, or what decisions she is struggling with. As Kayla confidently gives helpful advice to her online audience, we can hear, and observe in later scenes, how much she herself is working out the issues she advises on with feigned assurance. Combined with the frequent discrepancy between Kayla’s advice and her real-life choices, the approach is affecting without becoming maudlin, and does not try to conceal Kayla’s juvenile lack of judgment. The videos also provide a way to track any progress she may be making in key areas of her life.
The film is entirely from Kayla’s perspective, not ironically from an adult point of view. Her desires and fears are presented as real and compelling, just as Kayla would regard them, and the audience is invited to set aside their adult experience and sympathize with the girl’s pain at a classmate’s snub, her terror of saying the wrong thing, her genuine efforts to work past her own insecurities. Her personal triumphs, such as overcoming her shyness and singing karaoke at a party, are not patronised or dismissed, but are given all the fanfare due to the effort involved and the significance to Kayla’s self-image; and the skill of the filmmaker draws us into that world effortlessly. The one exception to the adolescent point of view is the single significant adult character, Kayla’s father (Josh Hamilton), whose perspective and intentions are apparent even as we see him through Kayla’s eyes. He recognises, vaguely, that his daughter is going through difficult times, and makes genuine efforts to be supportive, however often he is rebuffed or ignored.
His dogged attempts to reach out to his daughter, and to compete for attention with Kayla’s phone and social media contacts, are both funny and sad; and the film manages to acknowledge his efforts without losing Kayla’s position as the centre of her own story. When Kayla encounters some genuine pain and humiliation, and finally turns to her father for comfort, their comical sparring and unspoken affection are well enough established to allow for a father-daughter scene that is openly emotional and cathartic, as is Kayla’s finally coming to terms with the obstacles in her life and dealing with them.
This is a film that manages to combine both comedy and brutal honesty with a truly compassionate and perceptive portrayal of the turmoil of youth.
Other films you may also like…
The popular and award-winning Lady Bird, by actress, writer, and director Greta Gerwig, deals with the difficult, love-hate-love relationship between a teenaged girl and her mother. Seventeen-year-old Christine, or ‘Lady Bird’ (Saoirse Ronan) is letter-perfect; her desperate but misguided efforts to remake and elevate herself, according to her own limited lights, are at once hilarious and heartbreaking. Laurie Metcalf is magnificent as Lady Bird’s loving but exasperated mother.
Edge of Seventeen, although inclined to make its teenaged protagonist unrealistically clever and quirky, is a funny, touching look at the inner struggles of high school girl Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), one which is honest and sympathetic, but which also holds her responsible for her adolescent self-absorption and lack of kindness. Features an amusing turn by Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s sharp-tongued, long-suffering teacher and sounding board.