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A Big WGA Win for ‘Eighth Grade’ and What It Says About The Oscars

With Bo Burnham’s Writer’s Guild Awards win for ‘Eighth Grade,’ the Oscars writing category seems to be further from relevance than ever.
Eighth Grade
By  · Published on February 22nd, 2019

In years past, the Best Original Screenplay Oscar has felt like many things: a Breakthrough award; a Long Overdue award; a You Won’t Get Best Director But You Deserve This award. Last year, Jordan Peele‘s win for Get Out felt like the most collectively agreed-upon Oscar of recent memory. So this year, with the Writers Guild of America Awards honoring Bo Burnham‘s script for Eighth Grade, a movie that is nominated for a total of zero Oscars, we have to wonder if this means the Oscars are falling further out of touch with the cultural conversation.

The WGAs, historically, are notoriously old school writers awards that tend to lean heavily on established screenwriters and industry professionals. That the last three years the Best Original Screenplay winners at the WGAs include two A24-produced coming of age movies (Moonlight and Eighth Grade) bookending a Blumhouse production of a first-time feature screenwriter (Get Out), seemed to show the guild is pushing for relevance. With Moonlight and Get Out both winning Oscars for writing, too, the Academy seemed to be following suit. However, Eighth Grade‘s win this year without a single Oscar nomination may signal the WGA is moving in a direction more in line with yet another new era of Hollywood. But where does that leave the Academy?

Ah, the Oscars. We love them. We hate them. We love to hate them. We love to say “it’s all just political” as if an awards process by voting is not, in itself, politics by definition. We love to complain about the Live Action Short category despite not having watched a single entry. We especially love declaring, “If that film wins that award, I’m never watching again.”

Despite these promises, every year we return. Why is that? Is it the glitz and glamor, the one night where Hollywood puts down the Environmental NGOs and gives ’em a little of the ‘ol razzle-dazzle? Is it the joy of seeing an octogenarian Jack Nicholson squinting through his sunglasses as someone 1/6 his age accepts the Best Actor award? Is it the dresses and tuxes and speeches?

No. Despite all of these attractive and self-destructive reasons, the thing that brings us back to the Oscars every year is simple: the serotonin rush of being Right Together. That feeling when all of us, as a collective audience, look at an award and say ‘We all know who should win this, right?’ Even if they don’t win, we can all be indignantly Right Together. And every year, the award that seems to draw the most consensus, from serious movie fans to casual observers, is Best Original Screenplay.

Bo Burnham has been labeled with the term “wunderkind” so often that it has begun to lose its meaning, but he really did accomplish something amazing with Eighth Grade, his debut feature at the age of 28 years old, and with the first leading turn by its teenage star, Elsie Fisher. That Burnham came to fame in the early days of YouTube viral videos, something his lead character aspires to, brought a personal narrative to the film and its marketing.

So, was this story too rooted in Generation Z and young Millennial sensibility to catch even the slightest eye of the Academy? The unique form proved to be a strong genre as well this year, with the movies Searching and CAM also relying heavily on first-person video and social media aspects to enhance their narratives of isolation, anxiety, and the search for acceptance. The young female lead, in the throes of awkward puberty with all the anxiety and acne that involves, was a fresh and honest take on the “coming of age” film.

Burnham’s script relied on visuals of his lead, head buried in her phone, scrolling endlessly through her social media accounts in search of meaning. It avoided cliches while still feeling true to life, a major accomplishment for such a young writer and director. But the WGA win was still a surprise, so much so that Burnham was seated all the way in the back at the ceremony and had to walk a comically long time to the stage to give a completely unprepared speech.

A shockingly young first time director and writer, a ridiculously young star, a story that draws from the cultural zeitgeist. These qualities used to be catnip for the Best Original Screenplay category, not to mention the rest of the awards at the Oscars.

Increasingly, it feels as if the Academy and the filmgoing audience are seeing two different sets of films. They can try to overcorrect, as in the Best Picture nomination for Black Panther. But these moves increasingly feel like empty gestures directed at insisting the Oscars are still hip and with it, and not the disconnected, stodgy old grumps we have always suspected them to be. With Eighth Grade‘s snub in a category it was tailor-made for, the pendulum seems to swing toward the Oscars being out of touch.

This year, the nominees for Best Original Screenplay include two former bro-comedy directors on their “serious auteur” kick (the political satire of Adam McKay‘s Vice and the racism history piece of Peter Farrelly‘s Green Book with co-writers Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie), a Spanish-language family drama shot and directed by a “true auteur” (Alfonso Cuarón‘s Roma), a gritty emotional portrait from an old-school screenwriter’s screenwriter (Paul Schrader‘s First Reformed), and an oddball costume affair directed by the perpetually strange Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite, written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara).

Though they may not be the safest nominations ever, one does fear that Vice and Green Book are the front runners in a category much more suited to strangeness and taking chances, especially from new voices. Bo Burnham obviously has a career ahead of him as a director and screenwriter, but whether that career will even need to concern itself with the Oscars is yet to be seen. If an organization as old and traditional as the Writers Guild can see the merit of awarding such an original and fresh piece of writing, maybe the Academy will follow suit, and bring the screenplay awards back to what draws so many people to the category: innovative new voices telling interesting stories.

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Actor of little renown, writer of none, jack of exactly three trades