Eighth Grade, 2018.
Directed by Bo Burnham.
Starring Josh Hamilton, Daniel Zolghadri, Elsie Fisher, and Emily Robinson.
A teenager tries to survive the last week of her disastrous eighth-grade year before leaving to start high school.
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade earns a place at the kiddie’s table with Felix Thompson’s King Jack. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings Of Summer. Harmony Korine’s Kids (delivery, not extreme content). Mature, relatable childhood stories voiced by age-appropriate players. A24 has found an inspired collaborator in Mr. Burnham, who painstakingly transports audiences back to their most knee-buckling adolescent memories. Tweeny actors reenacting your worst middle school memories. Never have I seen a more adorable, awkward and heartfelt film that made me want to cringe into oblivion in the best way possible. Reality smacks you hard, and bless Mr. Burnham for roll-calling every exorcised squirm to the front of the class. Age be damned.
Elsie Fisher stars as shy protagonist Kayla, who’s kept her head angled downward most of her pre-high school career. You wouldn’t peg Kayla a “Quietest Student” superlative winner by the “instructional” YouTube vlogs she records, but on-camera Kayla flaunts an altered personality. In person, she’s intimidated by the slightest form of social interaction – but that’s all going to change. Kayla makes it her mission to ditch comfort, climb social ladders and try to avoid being embarrassed by her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) as often as possible. You remember how hard it was being a kid, right? Get ready to relive all that angst and self-loathing once again.
Burnham deviates from his stand-up tactics but retains every bit of signature existential anxiety. His vision for Eighth Grade resonates how little children know about the world and the dwelling on small insignificances like apocalyptic doombringing. “Things get better,” we’re repeatedly reminded. That doesn’t diminish the severity and suffocation of interacting with a crush, wearing your one-piece to a bikini-filled pool party or doing something the popular clique might exploit (PTSD flashbacks to feeling so helplessly out of place). From dramatic failures like gifting an “uncool” birthday present to wearing off-brand of clothing that could instigate unsolicited mockery, it’s all here – so wonderfully amplified by a 13-ish-year-old’s unique position.
In line with Burnham’s desire to challenge his audience (no matter the medium), Eighth Grade does not shy away from hot-button topics or extreme discomfort. Maybe as theater classmates with bullet hole makeup aid in school shooting response training, maybe as high schooler Riley (Daniel Zolghadri) inappropriately urges “Truth Or Dare” with Kayla in his backseat. The latter a paralyzing reminder of what it means to feel helpless, wronged and apologetic over something that heaps blame on an innocent party (callbacks to consent, slut-shaming and more burn from the inside). When “kids being kids” becomes more about forcing a change to “norms” that shouldn’t be. Bless little miss Fisher as she sullenly diverts eye contact and sells the discomfort that fills every inch of dead air in Riley’s parked car. You’ll want to look away, and with good reason. That’s intended.
With no overstatement, I must profess how Fisher nails every pre-deep-sigh beat of this anxious paranoia bomb. Dialogue spaced between “ums” and “likes,” posture that of a girl struggling to pull strength from inside herself. She’s the child you immediately want to protect from the minute she’s shown daydreaming during a Sex Ed video (while a student masturbates in the darkened classroom next to her, drawn into his t-shirt like a turtle). Whether researching her first “how to perform oral sex” YouTube video or ogling basketball hottie Aiden while “too cool for school” music blares in the background (rom-com absurdity on an elementary level), it’s how each of these scenarios finishes that defines Fisher’s performance. An uttered compliment gone unheard, or a mortified glance when dad swings open her bedroom door, or utter defeat at the hand of zero confidence. Shameless youth, overblown ramifications.
The two most important relationships that define Kayla are with Josh Hamilton’s “lame” single dad and the young daughter’s iPhone. Hamilton portrays a new-gen father dealing with Friday night dinners where Kayla would rather double-tap Instagram photos than converse during mealtime. Mark’s parental representation is what gut-punch final scenes of warmth are made of – supportive and warm – but Burnham’s capturing of Kayla and her phone still takes center stage. The way cinematography twirls as Kayla assumes “Selfie Mode” frames technology and its user as a romantic drama might swirl around two lovers embracing. Phones prominently define every scene, most times as actors distractedly text or play mobile games. Devices become characters, more than just props. The radiating glow of screens a constant light source as Burnham captures how technology has shifted social developments while fathers like Mark must adapt to this new all-access, always plugged in lifestyle – and why that may or may not be a healthy switch.
Eighth Grade rides a nerve-chewing rollercoaster that repositions early stages of maturity and updates conversations based on what’s presently most important. A reshaping of how children interact (online, not in person) and the ability for young girls to feel empowered in their own skin. Remember: Burnham hasn’t cast older actors who’ve experienced further than their characters. There’s an honesty in every action and a sense that performers like Elsie Fisher are living out their lives with us peering in. Bo Burnham unpacks coming-of-age thorniness as a means of readdressing how we act while also bridging the gap between generations that are growing farther and farther out of touch. But most importantly? Eighth Grade is a testament to embracing one’s true self over filtered-and-staged to hell avatars worth nothing more than online “Likes” – no matter what some sneers-and-scoffs girl named Kennedy thinks.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★★ / Movie: ★★★★