You are a renowned composer, producer, and performer considered one of the most innovative minds in modern British music.
I… am not.
One of the only things we likely have in common is that we were both teenage girls once. And I don’t know about you, but I would never want to be a teenager again. Especially not in the age of social media. But Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade reminds us that, regardless of the era, being a teen is pretty much the worst. And then it gets better.
Eighth Grade is a painfully acute, hilarious, and honest depiction of the most awkward stage of human development. It’s not a period many of us want to revisit, but Burnham’s approach is bursting with empathy, not just for Kayla, the film’s protagonist, or for her lovingly derpy dad, but for the viewer as well. It’s a sensitive and pointed reminder that life, at all stages, is a daily struggle, and we need to be kind. Particularly to ourselves.
Kayla is a product of her environment. She applies makeup and styles her hair before posting a selfie in bed, captioned “woke up like this”. Her mirror is festooned with post-it notes of affirmation reminding her to smile, be bold, and use green eyeliner. She has a YouTube channel where she posts vlogs for her peers about confidence and “putting yourself out there”, which have no views. Meanwhile, at school, she has been voted “Most Quiet”. She doesn’t stand out, and she doesn’t fit in. During her last week of middle-school she is determined to stop being invisible.
Your score is Kayla’s heartbeat, and it rises and falls with her triumphs and missteps. A bus ride, a stroll through her new high school, a trip to the mall; actions which seem small until you remember that every moment in a teen’s life is experienced in extremes. Case in point, a pool party that Kayla is begrudgingly invited to by the school’s most popular girl. I don’t know if you have been to this pool party, but I sure have. Most teen girls have. Your song Nautilus begins with a buoyant march of synthesized trumpets as Kayla finds the courage to leave the changeroom in her swimsuit, and suddenly, you drop an ominous techno thrum as Kayla reaches the pool deck and scans the proceedings, looking for a place to fit in or hide. You ramp up the intensity as the camera pans past groups of girls preening and groups of boys showing off. All this adolescent posturing would seem trivial were it not for your Ride of the Valkyrires-at-the-circus score. Neither Burnham nor you patronize these characters. This is not a joke to Kayla. This is life and death. It is the most effective scene in a film full of effective scenes.
Being a teen girl in the 21st century is exhausting, and Elsie Fisher’s unaffected and earnest portrayal makes Kayla’s experience universal. But the challenge of telling a story whose narrative relies so heavily on the technology of the moment, is to find a way to make Kayla’s journey seem timeless. Your electronica compositions mirror Kayla’s digital world, but they do more than that. They are a bold and orchestral accoutrement highlighting the rollercoaster ride of her life yet with a softly searching and hopeful undercurrent. It is a sonic representation of the sheer confusion of being a teen. It is as personal as it is inclusive but most importantly, it is cinematic in the way every young girl believes her life to be.