If there’s any stretch of time that nearly everyone might conveniently choose to forget, it’s middle school. Twenty-seven-year-old comedian Bo Burnham’s new film, “Eighth Grade,” doesn’t allow this luxury. It forces you to remember those years, no matter how tragic they may have been.
“Eighth Grade,” which was both written and directed by Burnham, had its New England premiere at the opening of Boston’s 16th annual Independent Film Festival on Wednesday.
The film follows Kayla Day, who, for anyone who came of age in this millennium, is relatable to an almost frustrating extent. Kayla spends most of her free time on her computer, makes YouTube videos in her bedroom that garner a total of three views, and lives her life on and for social media.
Elsie Fisher, who plays Kayla, absolutely carries the film, essentially defining what it means to give a breakout performance. The uniquely adolescent mix of feigned confidence, crushing shyness and palpable anxiety she brings to her character is nothing short of fantastic. When she appeared on stage for a Q&A after the screening, the 15-year-old actress received a well-deserved standing ovation from the opening night audience.
The film follows Kayla as she finishes the eighth grade, learning along the way what it’s like to meet boys, be a high schooler and much more. There’s situation after situation in this film that will feel so familiar to so many people — the only plausible reaction for many will be to curl up in a ball and try to avoid pulling a muscle from cringing so much.
It’s not uncomfortable to the point of being unwatchable, though, and Burnham does an excellent job injecting the scenes with enough comedy and drama to keep them interesting and engaging.
Burnham makes the everyday situation feel like life or death, but never in a way that’s corny or over the top. When Kayla first meets the eyes of the cutest boy in her class, booming, intense music plays, mirroring the eruption of emotions Kayla feels inside. It’s a trope, one seen plenty of times, but it remains fresh and funny here.
The music greatly helps with this effect. Almost all of the soundtrack features heavy electric synthesizers that blast the theater’s speakers with sound. The composer, Anna Meredith, has crafted a soundtrack that’s physically grounded in a sense — there are no plucky strings or soaring melodies meant to play on emotions.
Cinematically, the film is nothing too special, but nothing about it gives any indication that the person behind the camera is a first-time film director. The shots get the job done. The numerous shots of screens and technology look particularly impressive, especially as it’s obvious there weren’t any screen replacements or superimpositions.
Really the only hitch in the film is pacing — the only giveaway that Burnham isn’t as experienced as he seems. The film isn’t too long, and the overall narrative moves along just fine, but some scenes linger a little bit too long. More than once, it feels like the film is simply moving from sequence to sequence with no real connection between them.
Even for those currently in college, for whom eighth grade truly wasn’t that long ago, the film could easily feel as if it’s passed them by. It’s clear that in the film’s writing, Burnham made an effort to actually try to understand what it’s like to be a middle schooler right now, not just what he thinks it’s like or what it was like when he was younger.
Yes, the film is about being an eighth grader, a time that was generally terrible for everyone, but it’s also a film about being an eighth grader right now. It might be more about this time, 2018, than it is about eighth grade at all.
There’s a cultural compendium of coming-of-age films that span the decades — films like “The Breakfast Club” or “Stand by Me” that new generations continually discover and identify with. “Eighth Grade” will likely not be one of those films.
In fact, it’s not outrageous to say that this film will probably be irrelevant in maybe even less than a year. Some of the jokes and references are already a bit outdated. But this isn’t a detriment to the film in any way. In fact, it speaks volumes about how poignantly and correctly Burnham has captured what it feels like to be living in 2018.
“Eighth Grade” is a film entirely disinterested in nostalgia. It’s relevant, significant and almost cruelly relatable, but there aren’t any rose-colored glasses to be found. It pulls no punches. The film looks its subject matter and setting in the face and calls them out for what they are. It’s a biting, stinging truth about a place and time that all of us would rather forget.