A film review by Craig J. Koban August 30, 2018

EIGHTH GRADE jjjj

2018, R, 94 mins.

 

Elsie Fisher as Kayla  /  Josh Hamilton as Mark  /  Daniel Zolghadri as Riley  /  Frank Deal as Officer Todd  /  Greg Crowe as Principal McDaniels  /  Emily Robinson as Olivia

Written and directed by Bo Burnham

 

 

There have seen an awful lot of movies about high school life, but so very few that have dealt with the awkward and sometimes anxiety plagued transition that kids make while moving from elementary to high school, which is what makes writer/director Bo Burnham's very specifically titled EIGHTH GRADE so ultimately invigorating for an extremely over packed genre.  

Making a rather auspicious feature film directorial debut, the 27-year-old director is endeavoring here to capture the whirlwind of emotions - some exhilarating, some traumatizing - that one young girl goes through as she traverses through her final few weeks in middle school and how she, in turn, tries to become more self actualized and confident in the process, despite multiple social humiliations that befall her.  We're experiencing a relative golden age of uniquely strong youth centered films, like THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, the Oscar nominated LADY BIRD, and this year's LOVE, SIMON, but EIGHTH GRADE might be the most authentically raw and fully realized of the bunch; it's both achingly sad and upliftingly touching, and all without resorting to overused genre troupes.

 

 

 

The film also represents an absolutely star making performance from Elsie Fisher, who, unlike so many other performers that play teens in films, is actually age appropriate for her role, which lends incredibly well to the film's verisimilitude.  The 14-year-old actress plays the 13-year-old Kayla Day, an eighth grader from White Plains, New York that's dealing with the final weeks leading towards her middle school graduation.  As the film opens we see her posting one among many YouTube videos to her account, which all dabble in dishing out inspirational life advice for other kids on topics of dealing with the stresses of being a kid and dealing with life in general.  They have an inelegantly adorable charm to them with their bargain basement quality, but she nevertheless radiates a go-getter vitality in them.  Unfortunately, her on-screen appeal in her videos doesn't net her many views or likes, mostly because she's almost unhealthily shy and introverted at school and has very few friends.  She seemingly does everything alone, which concerns her single dad (Josh Hamilton, infectiously exuding dweeby affability), who struggles daily to make some sort of meaningful impact on her. 

Unbeknownst to her father, Kayla faces a constant barrage of embarrassing daily horrors at school, which, more or less, is what compounds her deeply guarded nature and inability to form ties with others (hell, as an added kick to the you know what, she's even voted as "Most Quiet" by her peers in her yearbook).  She experiences a horrible day when she's given a pity invite to attend a local rich and popular student's birthday party (Catherine Oliviere) that involves - gasp! - having to put a bathing suit on her somewhat pudgy body and expose herself around the most limitlessly photogenic classmates from the school (that, and the snotty girl clearly has no interest in being besties with her).  Kayla does make attempts to "put herself out there," especially with the hunky middle school jock (Fred Hechinger), who's such an unmitigated and creepy douchebag that it makes all of her attempts to curb his favor all the more difficult to endure.  But she keeps soldiering on making those YouTube videos, even though she might be the only repeat viewer of them. 

Watching EIGHTH GRADE was almost like watching a documentary throughout; it attains a level of stark realism with its damaged young character and shows her, warts and all (or, zits and all), at her least glamorous.  It's so bloody rare to watch any modern high school dramedy and witness adolescent characters that all look, sound, and act in a totally authentic manner, especially in the ways they vocalize with one another.  Burnham has a decidedly tough balancing act here in terms of wanting to making a comedy (and the film is riotously funny at times) while simultaneously not shying away at all from the cruel darkness that typifies youth culture and how many suffer through growing pains to the point of eroding mental health.  There are times throughout EIGHTH GRADE when I laughed hysterically at this poor girl's expense, but then later recoiled in horror and had to watch many other moments through my fingers because they were soul crushingly hard to stomach.  Yes, there have been many films about children on the cusp of young adulthood, but very few as agonizingly truthful as this.   

Beyond being an in-your-face chronicling of Kayla's deep seeded insecurities and moral anguish in wanting to be accepted by others, EIGHTH GRADE is also a compellingly rendered commentary on the nature of social media in shaping young people's lives, and often not for the better.  Kayla eats, drinks, breathes, and sleeps with her smart phone.  She lives vicariously through the YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter landscape, and because she forms an opinion of herself via these platforms it becomes easy to deduce where her self-doubt and body disturbance issues come from.  She's bombarded with images of attractive fellow students that are liked and followed, which only fuels her isolationist leanings.  She can't even carry on a meaningful conversation with her father because she simply lacks people skills.  I'm not entirely sure that Burnham is engaging in a hostile critique of social media as a whole (it can be, especially near the end of this film, a positive outlet for seeking nurturing friendships), but he does keenly show how living through your smart phone - especially at such a tender age - can lead to fractured personalities in how we act online and in-person.  One thing is for certain: Watching EIGHTH GRADE made me especially thankful that I experienced elementary and high school without the influence and distraction of the Internet. 

But, having said that, there's a universality to the pains that Kayla suffers through that can afflict any generation, regardless of exposure to the Internet.  Everyone, at some point or another, has gone through and felt exactly as Kayla does as she tries to eek out some sort of existence within a larger group of peers that she believes despises her.  Burnham litters his film with compellingly layered subplots, like one that shows her being befriended by a local high school girl, Riley (Emily Robinson), which never takes the road most traveled approach of predictability.  This popular girl actually likes Kayla and values the way she confides in her for advice on eventually moving up to high school.  Yet, just when things look rosy for Kayla, she finds herself alone in a car ride home with one of Riley's obnoxious and creepy male friends (Daniel Zolghadri) that culminates in one of the most unnerving and difficult to watch moments in any youth oriented film of recent memory.  

But there is lightness at the end of her emotionally damning tunnel.  I especially loved the whole overriding relationship arc that Kayla has with her father.  Now, one of the things that usually drives me absolutely nuts re-watching, say, John Hughes high school themed films is that he typically always portrayed adults as unsympathetic tools with very little redeeming qualities.  The kids were usually righteous in his films, despite their faults, but the older characters around them were demonized as ignorant and hopelessly out of touch simpletons.  EIGHTH GRADE has none of that.  Hamilton's father figure is, to be fair, an uncoordinated fortysomething dork, but he cares.  He deeply cares for Kayla, even though he stumbles over and over and over again at finding a manner of breaking through her icy facade.  But he's never shown as a John Hughes-ian adult antagonist that impedes the teen character's happiness.  He faces the indignation of her venomous retorts to all of his innocent queries as to her well being, but he continually tries to be a calm spoken and affectionate paternal figure in her life.  All of this culminates in a fireside chat between the pair - both at their wit's ends - that emerges as one of the finest heart-to-heart character moments of any film from 2018, featuring a touching speech from the father as to why his caring for his daughter should never be conceived as aggressive smothering.  It's an absolutely perfect scene and demonstrates how perfectly Burnham rejects genre formulas and simply decides to let scenes play out as the most likely would in real life. 

I couldn't possibly end this review without talking about the heart and soul of EIGHTH GRADE, which is the endlessly captivating screen presence of Elsie Fisher, who delivers one of the most realistic portrayals of a young teen girl ever to grace the silver screen.  It's the kind of quietly powerful and lived-in performance that couldn't ever be duplicated by an older actress trying to play younger, mostly because Fisher is the age of her character and, no doubt, brought her own personal history and experiences with the agonies of growing up.  Watching every scene she confidently occupied I was instantly transported thirty years ago to when I was a socially outcasted and deeply unsure of himself 13-year-old with nagging fears and doubts about making the stressful pilgrimage to high school.  I'm quite sure most viewers will, no doubt, have similar reactions while watching EIGHTH GRADE, which is the embodiment of a diamond in the rough film.  It's undeniably special. 

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