Saturday, January 26, 2019

Things shaped like bananas


Either 2018's funniest comedy, one of its most heart-rending coming-of-age stories, or both.

Written and directed by Bo Burnham

Spoiler alert: moderate

The word on young Bo Burnham's hyphenate debut, Eighth Grade, is that it's downright harrowing, especially for a movie where almost nothing that happens can be described as truly terrible.  But maybe that's even why it's harrowing: that means that almost anyone who watches it, girl or boy, woman or man, can relate to it in some way (and while it helps if you're white and suburban, its goals, summed up in its all-encompassing title, are clearly universal).  It's the same way that, in horror movies, the most wincing cuts of all are when people slice their hands open on broken light bulbs, rather than the bits where a mad slasher brings a pitchfork to an unwanted threesome and fucks his pair of lover-victims to death.  Eighth Grade is almost constantly harrowing, then; it's credibly horrible because eighth grade is horrible, as are most grades.  If I ever have children—and Eighth Grade confirms for my spouse and I that we probably shall not, but if we do—we have agreed that they're to be homeschooled.  Till 25.

Anyway, what I didn't know was that Eighth Grade would be so funny.  I had sometimes heard that it could be; the phrase most often deployed was "cringe humor," which I can dig, but mostly in a masochistic way, and which I don't usually actually laugh at.  I don't know exactly why Eighth Grade is so funny.  I know why some of its beats work, obviously, like the avowedly-ironic smash cut (complete with a sudden, overpowering score cue) that introduces our heroine's crush object Aiden as a demigod in her eyes and a beady-eyed nerd in ours; or the banana sequence, which is funny because it was funny when it was in American Pie, and it has not stopped being funny since.  But sometimes I'd find myself almost laughing, even when it was nasty.

Consider what may be its signature scene (or may not, Eighth Grade having a surfeit of potential "signature scenes").  This is where 13 year old Kayla, played courageously and very well by then-13 year old Elsie Fisher in the kind of child performance that makes you hope she finds her adult acting feet beneath her rather than vanishing like the Haley Joels of yesteryear, has been invited by an acquaintance's mom to a birthday pool party, and she's come despite the hostile indifference of her actual host.  Kayla weathers something awfully close to a panic attack in the bathroom before beholding the tableau before her, which is presented within the vocabulary of a 70s horror film, a long zoom-out that unveils her "peers."  Cut: and we find ourselves in the midst of a brutally long tracking shot that follows Kayla as she anxiously, silently passes through the throng of kids and out to the pool in her unflattering, ill-fitting, probably year-or-two-old bathing suit; she splashes in and crosses to the other side, sitting there for what feels like a full minute, and no one talks to her at all.  You are deeply sure the "joke" (ha ha) is that the next cut will see the sun much lower in the sky and Kayla leaving the party, having spoken to no other human being.  And that would be a certain kind of funny.  But who knows?  Maybe I'd have sobbed instead.  When they do acknowledge her presence, barely, it's just about as bad; the only person who takes the slightest degree of real interest in Kayla is a person that we know from experience, and Kalya knows innately, is a total dweeb, and is unlikely to be of much help to her in the Hobbesian world she's living in.  I mean, he's no Aiden.

That's pretty much what Eighth Grade is about: throwing you into the raw, borderline-incoherent psychological state of a pubescent child in a primate society who's almost implausibly lonesome and awkward, whom you sympathize with but are often bewildered by.  It kind of depends on just how well your adult defenses work whether any given moment makes you laugh or squirm (and there are so many where you wind up doing both).  It's almost too much, just how badly the deck's been stacked against her: no friends; no boyfriend; no mom, even, in an unstressed but glaring absence that feels like a wound nobody wants to talk about; no apparent interests that are not absurdly lame.  I don't think the film wants us to think of her as particularly bright or precocious, either, which is also an interesting change of pace (this goes well with its choice of a 13 year old girl, an underrepresented demographic if there ever was one).  And all of this is set against the natural desire to be popular, loved, or (at the very least) seen.  I don't know how much to credit Burnham, though it's certainly a great deal; he's the grown-up who wrote and directed this, and he's the one who drew the line between the cartoonish comedy it often resembles and the pure, even rigorous subjectivity it actually is—we see and know only what Elsie sees and knows, and if we interpret it better, thank God we made it, huh?  Thanks to the film's strong point-of-view, everything becomes reconciled: it feels over-the-top because to her it absolutely is.  Practically every single interaction is the apocalypse.  Imagine facing the end of the world twenty times a day.  Elsie Fisher did, and that's the other half of Eighth Grade's equation.

It seems like I might've gotten ahead of myself, yet, honestly, I haven't: Eighth Grade has no plot as such, just an impressionistic series of things-that-happened during the last few weeks of Kayla's final year in middle school, with a certain amount of soul-searching kicked off by her yearbook anointment as Most Quiet Student (though even this level of recognition seems unlikely for her) and by her reclamation of a time capsule she made in sixth grade.  It's better to say it has an arc rather than a plot, one that ends with certain optimism—Eighth Grade is a punishing movie, but Kayla doesn't kill herself or anything, relax—yet it's more interested than anything in simply learning what it means to be a 13 year old girl in modern America. (On this count, Burnham reportedly took notes from Fisher herself.)  This specific form of adolescence, of course, has its electric novelties.  But if things have changed so much, then why is Kayla so recognizable?

Besides, regardless of his commitment to plotlessly examining Fisher's 21st century archetype for our benefit, Burnham hands us a thruline in the form of Kayla's own bid at online immortality, a YouTube channel devoted mostly to Burnham's sense of irony.  Kayla's one hobby is making inspirational advice videos, all of which strongly appear to be directed at an audience of exactly one, namely her.  Certainly, they do not seem to have much wider appeal: as we see, Kayla gets even fewer views than this site does, and my primary audience is Russian software.  This is funny, too, if also unbearably sad.  Her dad likes them.  My dad thinks I drone on too long.

The film begins with one of Kayla's uploads, and it's a broadside opening gesture, a calculated aggression; this is a good way to start, since Eighth Grade is a series of broadside gestures couched in calculated aggression.  But they never get, you know, more than this, with the thirteen-ness of our protagonist punched up beyond withstanding.  It's perhaps her first video, or one of her first.  Still weaning herself off handheld cue cards, it occasions the narrowing of Kayla's vocabulary to almost nothing but variations on the word "like," with the rare full clause thrown in for flavor.  It's flattening and obvious in its generational and gendered implications, and it's a damn strong move, and thank God the rest of the movie isn't like it, at least in exactly that way.

As suggested, however, a lot of Eighth Grade is like it in a general way: despite sort-of mimicking a neorealistic feel, it's an extremely "made" movie.  The worst thing you can say about it is that you're very aware of Burnham making decisions—you're very aware of how each shot and cut is guiding you to this piece of information, to this particular feeling, to this bunch of bananas—but this is true of most films (indeed, it's supposed to true of any good film).  The only difference is that most films aren't quite in the same register as Eighth Grade—the performance Fisher gives is so good and grounded and stumbling and real, her shoulders slumped so hard it almost looks like it hurts and her huge eyes often shut tightly against an overwhelming world she can't control, that it sometimes clashes with the movie-movie Burnham's creating around her.  It leaves it something of an oddity, though one whose hybrid complexion I rather like.  It's not exactly like nothing I've ever seen before—all modern teen movies, and Eighth Grade is no exception, build on the 80s—but the arrangement of elements, never quite comedy nor melodrama nor docudrama, but always right on the edge of all three, really work to conjure the febrile intensity of adolescent flailing that's almost never captured this authentically.

Still, of course sometimes Eighth Grade is arguably more "things Bo Burnham likes" than anything else, like a dissolve-heavy montage set to every 13 year old girl's favorite song, "Orinoco Flow."  But most of Burnham's tricks serve both his whimsy and Fisher's anxiety.  The score in particular serves both masters well: an electronic work by Anna Meredith that feels just enough too contemporary to be strictly called a throwback, but which demands your attention every time it's on, which is very, very often; it's pretty blatantly sheer directorial preference, but it (and its belligerent placement in the sound mix) does hammer home all the emotions too big for Kayla's little heart to hold.  It helps that it's likely 2018's second best score, certainly its second best electronic score; and 2018 was a strong year indeed for electronic scores.

It's probably that connection as much as the coming-of-age subject matter that leads me to put it into competition with Summer of 84—the looming horror movie shot design helps, too—but the two pictures are kindred, in their way.  The other film deals in real hopelessness; a pure genre piece, it doesn't require nuance.  Eighth Grade doesn't tack that hard toward the darkness, though its own darkest scene isn't especially subtle—Kayla finds herself alone in a car with an older boy, and it gets bad enough—and it has that same sort of defeat-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-victory feel that Summer did so well.  It's the first really good day Kayla's had in a while, with the first friend she's made in an even longer span.  And, apparently, it has to end like that.  It's significant that Kayla's new friend, a high school girl that Kayla shadowed—and who has shown her what seems like great kindness—knows exactly what's happening, and lets it happen anyway.  Of course, it could've been worse.  Burnham knows we know it could've been worse: the threat of "worse" hangs horrifyingly over the scene, and lingers on long thereafter.  (Contrast the active shooter drill, which is just background noise.  Naturally: one of these things has a 25% chance of happening to her, and one them almost certainly won't, but nobody runs drills for the former.)

Hence it's unsurprising Eighth Grade closes on notes of ambivalence.  Kayla's dad (Josh Hamilton, generous and receding, his performance mostly a collection of baffled reaction shots), as seen through her eyes, is a dorky, clueless, almost ineffectual figure.  But he loves his daughter.  What's striking is how often he lies to her, because she's not ready for constructive criticism; or rather, the striking thing is that it's never clear he knows he's lying.  It's easy to respond to that sweetness.  But, by the end, Kayla has learned enough not to lie to herself.  I said that Eighth Grade is optimistic, in its way, but in its closing moments, Kayla records a message for herself to hear four years later, when she graduates high school.  Slightly stronger than she was when we met her, she hopes for many good things, while acknowledging the very real possibility that it won't be any better then than it is now.

Score: 9/10


  1. Those Russian bots have been cheating on my site with yours, evidently. Hands off!

    I'm glad you braved this movie and came out so strongly attached to it! I really loved this one, and you really keyed into all the moments that made it shine.

    Also- you're married? I'm either an idiot and misinterpreted your grammar, or an idiot who hasn't kept up with your relationship status. Either way, congratulations to you both!

    1. Nah, but we've lived together for four years, and I got tired of saying "girlfriend" every time. (Actually, I feel like you and Sergio have been together longer? But I could be wrong?) But thanks!

      Anyway, as for Eighth Grade, thanks for reminding me of it with your top ten! I also still need to check out Revenge.

    2. We've been together six years in March, I feel so old. And yay Revenge!

    3. Wow! That's pretty great, B! Happy early anniversary, too!