R, 94 mins.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
It's undeniably special.