Eighth GradeReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/20/18 04:10:38
There have, of course, been countless movies over the years offering cinematic depictions of the high school experience, ranging from earnest dramas to wacky comedies to eye-opening documentaries. However, when it comes to big-screen chronicles of the equally momentous middle school years, the numbers are comparatively tiny. The reason for this is presumably the same reason why that particular age can be so challenging in the real world—nestled in the grey area between full childhood and full adolescence, it is a time that can be tricky from a storytelling perspective and therefore tends to get put to the side by most filmmakers. With his first film, “Eight Grade,” writer-director Bo Burnham has elected to journey into this long-overlooked storytelling area and has come up with something that so perfectly encapsulates all of the feelings and emotions generated by that particular section of the growing experience that even those who have long repressed their own memories of what it was like to go through that age will find them all coming back in a rush during what proves to be one of the funniest, wisest and most touching films about growing up to come along in a while, one that belongs right up there alongside "Edge of Seventeen" and "Lady Bird."As the film opens, we see Kayla (Elsie Fisher) shooting the latest of a string of YouTube videos that find her offering her viewers life lessons on the importance of things like being yourself and having the confidence to not simply run with the crowd. It soon becomes apparent, however, that while she talks a decent game in front of her webcam, she has not yet figured out to apply those suggestions to her own life. Amongst her peers, she is quiet and awkward and her desperate need to be noticed and liked by her peers—especially the cute classroom bad boy, Aidan (Luke Prael)—is almost as painful to behold as the fact that her fellow classmates don’t so much mistreat her as they do barely recognize her existence at all. Elsie does have one unabashed cheerleader in her corner but alas, it is her well-meaning father (Josh Hamilton), who has been raising her alone since her mother bailed on them years earlier—alas, perhaps the one thing that can make a 13-year-old outsider feel worse than merely being alone is having a parent repeatedly tell them how special they truly are.
“Eighth Grade” follows Kayla through the final week of her middle school career, a period that presumably began with high hopes—a time capsule she buried then for her future self is addressed to “The Coolest Girl In The World”—but which has so demoralized her that when the school hands out various awards to students at an assembly, she snags the prize for Most Quiet. She tries to put the best possible face on everything—literally at one point when she carefully puts on makeup first thing in the morning before getting back into bed to take a “just woke up” selfie. She gets an invite to a pool party thrown by the most popular girl in school and even though she is painfully aware that the invite is the doing of the girl’s mother, she still turns up anyway. She tries flirting with Aidan during an active shooter drill but cannot draw him away from his phone until naked selfies and blowjobs enter the conversation. At one point, she spends the day at the local high school shadowing a senior girl who is genuinely warm and kind and inclusive towards her but even that glimmer of hope winds up having a down side to it. And yet, throughout, Kayla continues to make her videos for a seemingly nonexistent audience, possibly in the hopes that she will somehow be able to make use of her own advice at some point.
At first glance, “Eighth Grade” may seem as if it is simply offering viewers the chance to spend 90 minutes watching an awkward girl undergo one humiliation after another while we are asked to laugh ironically at her plight—the kind of approach that Todd Solondz has built an entire career upon. There are plenty of discomfiting moments to be had throughout the film, of course, but that is not the only thing that Burnham, who first made a name for himself making comedy videos on YouTube when he was younger, is trying to accomplish here. He genuinely likes Kayla, for example, and while he doesn’t shy away from her loneliness and desire to make some kind of connection among her peers, he doesn’t go to extremes to make his point. Take the pool party sequence, for example. Based on our experiences of other movies involving adolescent angst, we half-expect Kayla to become the butt of some elaborately cruel prank—hell, as she pensively stares out at her classmates while standing in her ill-fitting bathing suit, it seems as if she half-expects such treatment—but what she actually gets—being virtually overlooked by the crowd—is both infinitely more realistic and infinitely more heart-rending to see play out. At the same time, Burnham is careful not to make Kayla into some kind of absolute innocent being thrown to the wolves either—the way that she tries to drone out her dad at the dinner table when he tries to make small talk is authentically irritating and she even gives a bit of the cold shoulder to the one kid at the pool party who actually does reach out to her—the nerdy cousin of the guest of honor—presumably because she senses that he is one of the few people there lower on the social pecking order than she is.
One of the most impressive things about the film is Burnham’s unerring ability to capture the voice and mindset of the typical 13-year-old in situations ranging from the everyday mortifications to the rare moments of triumph. The problem with a lot of movies chronicling the youth experience is that they are written and directed by people who have long since left their childhoods behind and they tend to be told from the perspective of adults saying and doing the things they wish they could have said and done back then instead of what they would have actually said and done at the time. In those films, the kids are just a little too sophisticated and articulate to be believed and the situations are a little too cut and dried to be fully believed. Here, Burnham wonderfully evokes the confusion of a normal eighth grader taking her first tentative steps into her teenage years. There are no ready quips or ridiculously melodramatic moments to be had (there is one sequence in which Kayla finds herself in a bad situation and it is the way that it quietly sneak up on you that makes it so disconcerting) and even when she finally asserts herself towards the school queen bee, it has the halting and breathless manner of something that a kid would say and not the perfectly constructed words of a screenwriter.
There will be a number of reviews of this film that will try to compare it to the films of John Hughes but if anything, it stands as a corrective to those contrived fantasies to such a degree that it will be almost impossible to take them seriously again after a film like this.
The real treasure of “Eight Grade,” the one that transforms it from a very good film into one of the year’s best, is the knockout performance by Elsie Fisher as Kayla. Walking into the screening, I thought I had already seen the year’s best performance by a relative unknown when I saw Helena Howard’s stunning turn in the upcoming “Madeline’s Madeline” but Fisher, who has had a few small appearances in the past and who does the voice for one of the girls in the “Despicable Me” movies, could very easily give her a run for the money for that title. She so perfectly embodies Kayla that she will immediately transport viewers back to their own junior high experiences. However, she never allows you to think that she is giving a performance at any point—from her unaffected manner to the little scruff of acne on her chin to the way she brattily rolls her eyes at her father’s attempts to communicate with her, you always get the sense that you are watching a real period of time in the life of an actual teenager. More importantly, she draws you in so completely that you’ll find yourself experiencing the very same feelings that her character is undergoing—her sense of embarrassment when the popular kids ignore her, her excitement when she gets to hang out with the high schoolers and you will get a knot in your stomach like her when a game of Truth or Dare goes sideways. And yet, despite the despair and loneliness, she also gives you the sense that Kayla will indeed get past all of her current angst and nonsense and will one day look back on her younger days with equal degrees of regret and amusement—maybe even transforming her experiences into something as wonderful as “Eighth Grade.”AUTHOR’S NOTE. In yet another dubious decision on their part, the brain trust at the MPAA have chosen to give “Eighth Grade” an “R” rating “for language and some sexual material.” This means, of course, that actual eighth graders are technically barred from seeing it. Yes, some of the language is a tad salty at times but it is a.) probably nothing they have heard before and b.) makes sense since kids that age like to use swear words among themselves in order to seem more grown up than they actually are. Needless to say,I would say that there is nothing in it that would come across as wildly unsuitable for the average 13-year-old kid. Hell, I would make it mandatory screening for any kid going into junior high so as to give them some kind of warning as to what is most likely in store for them.
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