There was a moment in Bo Burnham's splendid film Eighth Grade that felt so real, it broke my movie wall. I think a lot about the movie wall. For me, it's that perpetual awareness, even in the most exciting, frightening, hilarious, touching, sweeping moments of a film, that, yes, you are in a theater and you are watching a movie. The movie wall isn't just the realization that, oh, hey, this isn't real. That's obvious. It's more like a slight separation, a nagging comprehension, no matter how good a scene, that I'm here and the movie is there.
Great artists do everything they can to quiet that feeling. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't. And once in a great while, when the stars align and the bifrost opens, there might come a transcendent moment when you're not just hearing Prince sing Purple Rain, or watching Alexander Hamilton lash out at George Washington, or tearing up when animated emotions take a girl through the next step of growing up ... the wall actually breaks, the stage disappears, the screen fades away, and the separation dissolves. You're no longer here while the story is over there. You're inside the story.
That's what happened to me during Eighth Grade.
[caption id="attachment_22794" align="aligncenter" width="471"] Elsie Fisher is a revelation.[/caption]
In the scene, eighth-grader Kayla is in the car, and she's headed to the mall to hang out with a cool high school girl whom she has just met, a girl who had been stunningly nice to her. A high school friend? It's almost too wonderful to bear. Kayla overflows with emotions. She's excited. She's nervous. She's exhilarated. She's anxious. She's thrilled. She's scared out of her mind.
Kayla's father is driving the car, but we never see him in the scene. The camera stays on Kayla, who is -- as she always is -- working over her phone. Then there comes a moment when she turns to look at her dad, and she immediately tells him to stop looking that way. Her Dad doesn't know what she's talking about. He says that he's just looking at the road. Does she want him to stop looking at the road? She screams that OF COURSE she doesn't want him to stop looking at the road, but she wants him to stop looking like THAT, and he isn't sure what THAT means, and this goes on for an uncomfortably long time, her insistence, his confusion, her fury, his bewilderment, her worry, his worry.
And for those few moments, I wasn't watching a movie. I was in that car.
This might be because I'd had that exact experience on the CAR RIDE TO THE MOVIE.
Being the father of an eighth-grade girl -- and I'm about to do that all over again with our younger daughter -- is entirely baffling. One moment, she's so much like an adult that it's hard to tell the difference. The next moment, she's so much like a second grader that you wonder if you accomplished anything as a parent. The intensity of the contrasting emotions overwhelms you. The hugs are tighter. The screams ar louder. Smiles and scowls come and go like reception from a distant radio station. She's just like you. She's nothing like you. She rebels. She emulates. She's confident. She's frightened. She doesn't want you to see any of it.
She only knows one thing for certain, and it’s this: You can't understand.
Capturing all this was the miracle of Eighth Grade. On the surface, this belongs in the coming-of-age movie genre, a modern and edgy John Hughes thing, a story about an eighth-grade girl consumed by technology and angst and the feeling that she's odd and unlovable and misunderstood. The actress who plays Kayla, Elsie Fisher, is breathtakingly good, Oscar good, it's a "she's going to be the next Jennifer Lawrence" sort of performance.*
*A fun tidbit: Fisher also voices Agnes, the youngest girl in the Despicable Me movies, so she has already made her mark on the movie world with her famous shriek, "It's so fluffy I'm gonna die!"
But for me, the movie has something else, something more. I Tweeted this out after seeing it:
That was the wonderful part. The father, played splendidly by the non-baseball Josh Hamilton -- Josh (I use his first name as if I know him) is a longtime character actor whom you've definitely seen in something, because he's been in everything -- isn't on screen very much. And yet his bewilderment, his desperation to connect, his awkward and flailing attempts to convince Kayla that she's utterly awesome, all of that is a huge part of what makes Eighth Grade magical.
And then there's the incredible eye of first-time director Bo Burnham. I must admit that up to now I only know Burnham from one thing -- he was the hysterically funny friend in The Big Sick. In that movie, he has one of the funniest lines I've ever heard, a line my older daughter and I use all the time. Essentially there a profoundly unfunny comedian in the movie -- the whole joke is that he's not funny -- and he is trying out an unfunny sick joke about a dog at an airport on his comedy friends, including Burnham.
"That's good," Burnham says. "What if instead of it being at the airport, you quit comedy and never did comedy ever again?"
I never stop laughing at that joke -- I can't fully explain why, nor would I want to fully explain why.
Burnham does many remarkable things in this movie, and I don't want to spoil any of them because you should experience them yourself. But I wlll mention one because it's so subtle and so brilliant that I can't help myself. It's not exactly a spoiler, either; this has nothing at all to do with the plot or anything like that. But just to be safe, skip the next paragraph if you'd rather fully experience it on your own.
The moment: Kayla is hopelessly smitten with a boy named Aiden. At some point, they're at a pool party, and there's a slow-motion close-up of a shirtless Aiden, loud music pumping in the background. This is how Kayla sees him, as too good to be true, as this rock star, as this perfect human, the very essence of beauty. We've all seen this kind of scene in movies a thousand times. But then, for just a couple of seconds, Burnham turns off the music and shows Aiden at regular speed, and we're left with the truth: Aiden is just a geeky, gawky, too-skinny eighth-grade boy who's as baffled by the world as all the rest.
I watched Eighth Grade with Margo and our two daughters, the one who was an eighth grader and the one who becomes one now. That was interesting. We laughed at different parts. We cringed at different parts. We took away different things. But the big point was that each of us, at different points, had the wall broken down, and for a few moments, we all lived inside the movie. The drive home felt like an extension of Eighth Grade. I can't think of any other movie where that happened.