Eighth Grade Review

You’ve never experienced your middle school years thrown back at you with the same acne-covered-skin-crawling authenticity as Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade.” Maybe the film’s insane relatability factor doesn’t climb up to the oldest-living branches on our family trees, but awkward is awkward whether you’re a digital native or walked five miles in the snow to get to school.

Burnham’s standup comedy background surely isn’t enough on its own to make a good movie, let alone one that connects so deeply to the collective human experience of adolescence, but great comedians have a way of reflecting the world back at us in a way we inherently understand but haven’t yet articulated. “Eighth Grade” could have easily started out as a comedy bit that just became too real not to flesh out in greater depth.

The story focuses on Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in her last week of eighth grade as she grits her teeth through these last moments of being the person she has been (voted “most quiet” by her fellow students) and starts to imagine the person she can be in high school. It’s an emotional battle she chooses to go at alone rather than turn to her single father (Josh Hamilton) for any support.

What a 28-year-old man can say about what it’s like to be a 14-year-old girl today is a fair thought worthy of an eyebrow raise, but from the very beginning of the film, Burnham gives Kayla ownership of her story. She’s a video blogger, giving advice to her viewers from her personal experience, a construct that the adults watching will recognize as her way of processing her emotions. Burnham’s best script device is interrupting the dramatic flow with audio from Kayla’s next video in which she’s giving advice that clearly synthesizes the scene we are currently witnessing or just watched. All this preserves Kayla’s voice as a character. Never does it feel as though Burnham is speaking to us instead except when he’s conveying humor.

Fisher has a lot to do with this success. Like any middle-schooler, we can empathize with Kayla just as easily as we can be annoyed at her attitude and lack of perspective. Thankfully we get more of the former; her performance has a way of making us emotionally travel back to a time when we were in her situation, feeling misunderstood, anxious and mad at the world.

Burnham doesn’t completely swerve away from the cliches we get from movies about middle school, in fact he leans into some of them, but good observational standup comedy works the same way. Similarly but on the serious side of things, the necessity of the of the film’s darkest scene will surely be a point of debate. We’re used to seeing moments like it in other coming-of-age films, which is reason why you might say it doesn’t work – “Eighth Grade” isn’t otherwise like those other movies.

Watching “Eighth Grade” you realize the ways most coming-of-age films endear us but reflect a more nostalgic perspective on teenage years. Suddenly those films seem too glossy and polished. And they’re made by adults who make assumptions about the younger generations. Burnham could’ve fallen into that trap, but he’s smarter than that. He even takes a number of digs at adults who, for example, think using contemporary lingo is going to resonate with these kids. He celebrates the vulnerability and yearning for authenticity that actually lies behind this new generation’s Snapchat and Instagram compulsions. It’s simply a different iteration of these timeless truths about the trials of adolescence.

 

4.5/5 Stars

 

Eighth Grade
Written and Directed by Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton

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