It is both a great and confusing time to be alive. So confusing that I have been sitting for twenty minutes with only that opening sentence to show for it…how do you describe the internet conglomerate in all its vastness and far-reaching implications for politics, pop culture, relationships? It’s been over a decade of this, the age of the modern internet, when social media took over the world, and we’re only now beginning to tease out the true benefits and drawbacks of our collective addiction to such constant communication and connection with the entire world, this Encyclopedia Britannica times a hundred. With subtlety and exaggeration, respectively and not so respectively, two films of late seek to address these changes to our everyday, every-minute life, our current moment of scrolling, posting, tweeting, snapchatting, and ironically poking for all the world to see.
In the words of filmmaker Bo Burnham, “Eighth Grade” is not a coming-of-age tale. “Coming of age” assumes there’s a finite number of years for growing up. That at some point in time people are done growing, done with the hardship of learning, evolving, understanding better the world around them. There’s no such thing as “coming of age,” but if we are to zero in on those particularly troublesome teenage years, “Eighth Grade” is the best of that genre since “The Breakfast Club.” High praise, I know, but this is no hyperbole. These are the ravings of a thirty-something writer who thought he was out of film criticism for good, until a little film from an anxious comedian that could single-handedly reeled him back.
A pre-teen boy sniffing one of those sumptuous permanent markers, another picking his nose, a young girl in the throes of adolescent crushing, her internal radio set to hard rock as she grows silent and wide-eyed at the sight of her jock classmate merely walking past. Anyone watching Eighth Grade will find some kernel of truth, an old memory re-imagined, a reminder of what was at age twelve or thirteen…and they will laugh. Burnham’s film took me by surprise not for its potent emotional content, but for how funny it is, which shouldn’t be surprising given the man’s comedic bonafides on stage. And his bonafides online (Burnham started out as a YouTube star) give him particular insight into that culture, especially the kind of selfie self-help videos that have been popularized by teenage girls over the last ten years.
As protagonist Kayla, Elsie Fisher is an absolute discovery, sort of…apparently she’s the voice of Agnes in the Despicable Me franchise. Who knew? But Fisher is perfect as the shy girl at school who’s always trying to break out of her shell but just can’t quite get over the hump, either by happenstance or typical intentional teenager cruelty. She navigates the hallways and haranguing insecurities of her middle school universe, sometimes shirking her loving father’s dorky-sweet attempts at conversation, or losing herself in the cacophony of social media and video content on her phone, on her laptop, in her life. It’s all around her. It’s all around us, all the time. In one moment, she’s getting through life thanks to old-school Enya, the next moment she’s facing down the awkward prospect of telling her crush she has nude photos to impress him. These are the hurdles of thirteen years old with the world, and everything grown up about it, right at your fingertips.
Eighth Grade has a lot on its mind: fathers and daughters, the perils of adolescence, growing up in the internet age, but they’re seamlessly and poignantly weaved together by Burnham’s writing and by Fisher’s astute performance as a character only a year younger than herself. It’s a bummer when the MPAA deems “Skyscraper,” a movie where terrorists mow down dozens with bullets, more appropriate for teenagers than a film explicitly made to help them realize their potential. Regardless, this is a film that parents and children should watch together, R-rating be damned. “Eighth Grade” is not an after-school special. It’s an important and, more importantly, entertaining film for this great and confusing time.
I have less to say about “Unfriended: Dark Web,” a silly and quasi-cautionary tale about snooping around the dark corners of the internet. The wonky premise involves one freelance software developer who takes in an abandoned laptop from his local cyber cafe, only to discover it had belonged to a black-hoodied member of the titular “dark web,” a place brimming with debauchery and dastardly people seeking to kill, maim, and torture for money or pleasure. As preposterous as the plot turns may turn out to be, and make no mistake, they are absurdly morose, even for a horror film, there’s something to mine here for those old fogies in fear of the internet and all that it represents. The dark web is a real wonder in 2018, which counts for something, even if the correlation to violence and worldwide conspiracies is wildly exaggerated and/or outright false. In the absence of realism, “Dark Web” manages to infrequently disturb or disorient its audience when addressing such phenomena as “phishing” or mysterious web portals. The problem lies with all of it amounting to nothing but emotional torture porn, more or less. Nihilism gets in the way of not only any pertinent warning of the dark web’s untold possibilities, but also anything approaching an enjoyable time at the movies.