Spoiler alert! The following deals with a pivotal scene in “Eighth Grade.” Bail now if you don’t want to know the details.
NEW YORK – “Eighth Grade” is the scariest film of the year, in more ways than one.
For those of us who remember having more acne than friends in junior high, Bo Burnham’s poignant coming-of-age comedy (in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expanding nationwide throughout the summer) will feel all too real.
But there’s one scene that has nothing to do with mean girls or lame dads that proves most frightening of all. It comes in the movie’s last 20 minutes, after endearingly shy eighth-grader Kayla (Elsie Fisher) gets a burst of confidence when she befriends high-school senior Olivia (Emily Robinson) during a school event for incoming freshmen. After they hang out with a group of teens at the mall, Olivia’s friend Riley (Daniel Zolghadri) offers to drive Kayla home — a seemingly innocuous gesture that neither girl thinks twice about.
It’s only when Olivia is dropped off that things turn sinister, as Riley pulls over to the side of a quiet neighborhood street and hops into the backseat with Kayla. There, he instigates a dread-inducing game of truth or dare: He gradually asks Kayla, who is four years younger, how far she has gone sexually, before taking off his shirt and urging her to do the same. Staring down at her lap and visibly shaken, Kayla refuses and Riley begrudgingly returns to the driver’s seat, where he berates her.
As this reporter can attest, the scene inspired impassioned reactions during screenings of “Eighth Grade” at both Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and BAMcinemaFest in Brooklyn, where audience members squirmed and yelled at the screen.
“It’s what people do in a horror movie,” Burnham says. “It’s exciting to see it play for an audience so incredibly tensely, because it didn’t play that way on (set). We approached it sensitively, but we didn’t know it would be ‘the’ scene of the movie.”
Burnham, 27, wrote the script three years ago, long before a wave of sexual harassment allegations across industries ignited the #MeToo movement last fall. For the comedian-turned-director, Riley’s inappropriate advances are about emotional manipulation: After Kayla turns him down, Riley guilts her by saying, “I was trying to help you” and that high-school boys will make fun of her for being sexually inexperienced. Feeling ashamed, Kayla apologizes profusely and bursts into tears at home.
“I have people tell me all the time, ‘I’m so glad that scene didn’t go where I thought it was going to,’ ” Burnham says. “But it doesn’t need to in order to be emotionally violating for her. I wanted to portray a moment that, when described after the fact, doesn’t sound like a big deal, but actually is when you sit there and experience it with her.
“That scene takes a turn where her anxieties can’t just be dismissed by an adult as, ‘Oh, you’re in eighth grade. Nothing’s really happening to you.’ Significant things happen at (that age) that can really traumatize kids.”
Fisher, 15, says she understood the weight of the scene when she shot it last summer, although it wasn’t as uncomfortable as it appears in the movie. She had the script sitting in her lap and Robinson hid in the front seat to cheer her on in between takes. Despite the film’s R rating, the actress hopes young people will see “Eighth Grade” and feel empowered by Kayla saying “no.”
“You don’t have to do things you’re uncomfortable with, regardless of whether you’re a confident person or not,” Fisher says. “You can still speak your mind, especially in that kind of situation.”