Last weekend, I saw Eighth Grade at the AMC in La Jolla. I’m happy to report my concerns that Bo Burnham’s directorial debut would be little more than another coming-of-age story were dispelled. Burnham completely understands how cinema can tap into other perspectives and emotions, namely anxiety. For Elsie Fisher’s Kayla, overwhelming feelings are front-and-center, something that Burnham says he identifies with as a director right now. That empathy is a big reason why Eighth Grade never taps into selfie-shaming its generational subjects. As Burnham elaborated to Consequence of Sound:
There’s such a big difference. MySpace and Facebook are like make your own website, so it’s still kinda kitschy. But Instagram and Twitter, which kids have now, is literally what you look like and what you think. The media engages with them in primal ways now. They’re watching the national conversation play out on these mediums.
There’s a conscious effort to understand, an effort that’s guided by the music of Anna Meredith, who has assembled in Eighth Grade one of the year’s best scores.
I say “assembled” because not everything on her debut score is entirely original. “Nautilus” was Meredith’s 2012 single, and “Honeyed Words” is from her 2016 album Varmints.
It’s also worth mentioning the ancillary cuts because they’re so seamless to Eighth Grade‘s story. The aforementioned “Nautilus” announces the presence of Kayla’s classroom crush in hilarious, overwrought fashion. The whole world seems to stop when Aiden opens his eyes — and for the record, they were voted “best” in the entire class.
Other cues splash cannonballs into pools of happy (“Being Yourself”) or indulge in hiccuped stupors (“How to Be Confident”). “Stay Calm” seems to dance along a jagged, dangerous path. Like the film itself, Meredith’s music is complex and in totality, contradictory. It is both dreadful and playful, an exhausting sine wave that crests and dips at a moment’s notice.
I was initially surprised that Burnham didn’t take songwriting duties himself, because directing a movie isn’t enough of a job already. Meredith is a fitting choice. By way of surface level choices, the dominance of keyboards is a fitting synergy with Burnham’s early DIY songwriting. Meredith also possessed both a traditional pedigree and a penchant for disrupting convention, serving as Composer in Residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra while writing “HandsFree,” which winks at concert hall formalism with produced effects and rhythms.
There were moments watching Eighth Grade where I felt like I was suffocating, trapped with Kayla in awkward conversation and cringing embarrassment. Other times, middle school didn’t seem like such a bad place. Whatever the emotions, the music was right there, often overwhelmingly so, and I was never quite sure if I was meant to bolt in the opposite direction or stick around and dance.