Growing up as psychological horror (not psychological horror as growing up) in Eighth Grade

eighth grade

Eighth Grade (2018)
Dir. Bo Burnham

Whatever Burnham’s investment in our contemporary moral panic as some distinct historical moment of for-real-this-time fear over the hearts and minds of our young*, he neatly deals with perceptible manifestations of ‘the time’ as they’re navigated by intergenerational, maybe universal anxieties. Which is a nice way of walking the tightrope between curiosity/condescension and empathy, even if the weight of its empathy’s all in cringe. Curiosity: the consumer’s ability to more or less choose the content in their feed means a social media feed enacted at school: rather than being actively picked on, you don’t get ‘seen’. (You’re the spam that ninety percent of the time gets hidden by the user’s adblocker, but which gets through when a clueless parent uses the device). Empathy (not actually empathy but a specificity that had me rolling on the floor): less the pool party itself (which is obvious), but always managing to find (and then becoming stuck with) the weird mask and snorkel cousin at such an event.

I don’t buy the criticism that the film abruptly switches its tone to become superficially hopeful- Kayla seems to understand that the high school experience will be the same and (after the Truth or Dare scene) in many ways worse than middle school, it’s just that the only way to survive it will be to see a weathered ‘self’ emerge through all the horrors endured. Which is something she’s believably looking forward to- seeing what’s left, then standing with it and thinking I can do this. And I understand the sentiment- I’d rather be suicidal at sixteen again than that mess of a thirteen year old tormented by the constant onslaught of hazy/contradictory thoughts and feelings. I don’t think things necessarily get better, but we at least develop a vocabulary with which to express some of the things that are fucking us up.

Eighth Grade is shot like an A24 horror movie which (no surprises) works better with comedy than it does horror, and as advertised it’s consistently funny and horrific. Burnham not only does simple things well but actually demonstrates confidence in a directorial voice that he hopes will (at least on the surface) differentiate the film from whatever coming of age film is playing next door. This is the most promising thing about him as a director but also the riskiest thing about Eighth Grade as a film: its approach to naturalism. I see others claim a lived-in, elliptic quality that’ll have the film matter well into the future, where to me it’s as transient and inconsequential as another film’s trailer.

*When I was a kid it was videogames and hip hop that made us horrid fucked up detached/hyperstimulated/housebound/hypersexual psychopaths, before that it was comics and heavy metal, much before that it was television and Elvis

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