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Eighth Grade
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by Jay Seaver

"As full of potential but stuck in-between as any middle-schooler."
3 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018: There has got to be a way of portraying awkwardness and uncertainty aside from dragging it out, and that "Eighth Grade" doesn't find it is kind of a bummer, because the are only a few scenes in the movie that don't feel like they are five times longer than they need to be. There are some terrific moments in this movie, and maybe one has to be a bit ground down to appreciate them, but it's entirely possible that I wouldn't get to the good parts of this movie in my living room as opposed to in a crowded theater.

The eighth-grader the audience meets is Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who creates videos on YouTube that very few watch and is frustrated that one of them predicts the "Most Quiet" superlative she's awarded during her last week of junior high. Her dad (Josh Hamilton) doesn't seem to get her, her crush (Luke Prael) is more or less unaware she exists, and the class's most popular girl (Catherine Oliviere) only invited her to the spring pool party because her mother told her to. Her class made time capsules at the end of elementary school, and she's frustrated that she hasn't become the cool teenager she was expecting to be.

Writer/director Bo Burnham has opted to make a film about today's middle-schoolers as of when he shot it in 2017, something he as much as admits is a moving target in-film as high-school students just three or four years older than Kayla talk about how things are different for kids her age than they were for them, even if it's just a matter of how long they've had their own phones and which social media platforms they use. The way Burnham engages with characters on their phones and social media is interesting, though, in that he tends to show it as is, with shots that emphasize the small iPhone screens when the audience needs to see what Kayla is texting or which encourage one to pay attention to their reactions rather than having some sort of balloon pop up with the content. It's a move that reinforces how opaque these conversations can be but doesn't make those involved look like drones.

Kayla's YouTube videos are also kind of fascinating once the film has settled in: There's initially something kind of low-key intriguing about how she feels more natural on YouTube than in person balanced with moments that will produce a snicker because she's not really in a position to speak on much with any sort of authority. Adults who tend to point at this sort of thing as evidence of younger generations' narcissism might have an aha moment when Burnham makes their connection with the time capsule explicit, though - that these trivial things are, whether intended that way or not, messages to one's future self, records of what she and similar kids were like without the haze of nostalgia; presumably, what Burnham hopes the film itself will be.

The less abstract good parts are pretty terrific, too - the last couple scenes of Kayla and her father are absolutely worth waiting for, with Burnham and actor Josh Hamilton capturing a father who is both genuinely embarrassing and concerned in a way that doesn't seem cute or wise in a pat way. There's something invasive in how he spies on Kayla that can get someone inclined to identify with the well-meaning dad to empathize with the daughter, and a general sense of stumbling through things. There's a smart counterbalance to the expected "you'll grow out of this", too, a tense reminder that certain parts of Kayla's life will soon get dangerous on top of annoying and confusing.

The central performance is also extremely impressive. Elsie Fisher has an expressive face that lights up when things start to go well and tenses up exceptionally well on the other end. Mostly, she's got a reedy openness, not tentative but still not entirely confident. She's funny in how she's deliberately not slick, easily making the slide to the sort of self-doubt that eats a person up inside as a result. She crumbles well, projecting a lot of despair just in how she looks at or fiddles with things.

That's a lot of good material, but much of it is stuff that requires a viewer to dig through some dross to get to it. The silly musical cues that accompany the utterly charmless Aiden on-screen are especially grating in a movie that is mostly presented from Kayla's perspective with minimal adornment, and indeed, the moments where Burnham tries to veer from the straightforward, either by foregrounding Anna Meredith's unusual (but interesting) score or letting the image go blurry or kaleidoscopic. When he's trying to show how something grinds Kayla down, it's often done in the form of just dragging things out or simple repetition, not coming from different directions or creating an unnerving rhythm. It makes the film feel even more backloaded than it actually is.

Maybe it simply comes down to personally finding this category of movie a hard sit; I over-empathize with characters feeling embarrassment and intimidation and wish I could just get the point without going through it with them. On the other hand, I felt bored more than drawn in for much of this, even while nothing that the stuff making me fidgety was effective in getting its feeling across.

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originally posted: 05/15/18 11:19:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival series, click here.

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  13-Jul-2018 (R)
  DVD: 09-Oct-2018


  DVD: 09-Oct-2018

Directed by
  Bo Burnham

Written by
  Bo Burnham

  Elsie Fisher
  Josh Hamilton
  Emily Robinson
  Jake Ryan
  Daniel Zolghadri
  Fred Hechinger

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