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Eighth Grade Movie Review

Eighth Grade (2018) movie poster Eighth Grade

Theatrical Release: July 13, 2018 / Running Time: 94 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Bo Burnham

Cast: Elsie Fisher (Kayla Day), Josh Hamilton (Mark Day), Emily Robinson (Olivia), Jake Ryan (Gabe), Daniel Zolghadri (Riley), Fred Hechinger (Trevor), Imani Lewis (Aniyah), Luke Prael (Aiden), Catherine Oliviere (Kennedy), Nora Mullins (Steph), Gerald W. Jones (Tyler), Missy Yager (Mrs. Graves), Shacha Temirov (Mason), Greg Crowe (Mr. McDaniel)

 

Prior to 2018, the résumé of Bo Burnham had only a handful of writing and directing credits,
almost all of which pertained to his stand-up comedy specials and an MTV series he created that ran for 13 episodes five summers ago. That makes Eighth Grade, both written and directed by Burnham, a filmmaking debut for the ages.

Given his youth, Burnham, who turns only 28 next month, has been around a while. He was there for YouTube's infancy, emerging as one of the first breakouts of that website and getting his first Comedy Central special just after turning twenty. That background in homemade videos certainly seems to shape his first feature film in a creative role, but this coming-of-age indie's achievements go well beyond that.

Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) snaps a selfie from a flattering high angle in "Eighth Grade."

The protagonist of Eighth Grade is Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), who at the film's opening is one week from graduating middle school. Kayla is by seemingly every measure an average 14-year-old girl with a below average social life. She records regular videos offering tips to her peers and encouraging subscribers. There is no evidence that many are watching or benefitting from these videos, but they seem to give their creator more joy than anything else in life.

When she's not recording those, Kayla is drowning out her single father Mark (Josh Hamilton) and immersing herself in the social media of classmates she's not really close to.

Going to school is one of the few things that just about everyone does in their life and the universality of that experience, no matter how different it is for all of us, is full of rich storytelling possibilities. By avoiding conventions, like the classic cliques of jocks, bullies, divas, and nerds, Burnham manages to distinguish this film from the many fine school-set comedies and dramas that have come before it. Sure, there are are elements here that will remind you of movies like Mean Girls, Napoleon Dynamite, and Sixteen Candles, but Eighth Grade is not much like any of those.

Mark Day (Josh Hamilton) comforts his daughter Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she burns a time capsule holding her "hopes and dreams."

For one thing, Burnham's movie is focused on the time right before high school, the four-year process that in theory anyway turns children into adults. The middle school experience has not widely been dramatized and when it has been it is typically in television shows that are far removed from reality like "Hannah Montana" and other broad, garish basic cable sitcoms of that type. Eighth Grade is rated R, which makes it difficult for those currently experiencing that age to see it, but also renders the film more genuine and relatable when they do.

Eighth Grade is very much in the moment. I'm sure that will date the film in a few years when Snapchat and Instagram either fall out of use or dramatically change appearance. But it gives the presentation greater impact and relevance in the here-now.

And it is not as if the movie succeeds by simply capturing a moment or immortalizing the roles that social media currently hold in adolescents' lives. More striking than any of that is just how Bunrham
conveys the emotions and experiences of that fragile early teenage period. The writer-director gives such seemingly minor incidents the grandiosity and weight they hold in the moment to those experiencing them. Music flares and time slows when Kayla steps outside to a pool party, less than comfortable in her bathing suit. She cannot breathe and drops her phone when a high school senior she's shadowing invites her to hang out at the mall.

These are passing moments in your typical mainstream coming-of-age movie, but they're a big deal to someone craving friendship and acceptance, and Eighth Grade excels at presenting them as such. It's tough to understand how Burnham, a childless 27-year-old man, can relate so specifically to the experiences of an insecure 14-year-old girl, but he manages to make the viewer recall the same rushes of excitement and nervousness that they had at that age regardless of their social status.

It is not a stretch to say that Eighth Grade does for the insecurities and uncertainties of pre-high school what great movies like The Graduate, Rushmore, and last year's Lady Bird did for the ages that follow.

Eighth Grade has been flirting with Lady Bird-esque near-unanimous critical acclaim since it premiered at Sundance last January. A24, which distributed Lady Bird, might have attempted a similar awards season run for this movie, but instead they've opened it in the middle of summer at a time when you find far more bad big movies than small good ones. In reality, Eighth Grade is probably too small to compete for any major awards, even though it is almost certain to end up among 2018's best films.

The last highly acclaimed A24 movie to feature children in lead roles -- The Florida Project -- ended last year on many a critic's best list, but only had a number of Supporting Actor nominations and minor wins to show for it. Do the vulnerable Fisher (a Despicable Me alum) and extremely sympathetic veteran Hamilton deserve consideration for their performances as daughter and father? Absolutely. But unless the movie can capture the moviegoing public's attention in a big way, I don't foresee it garnering much recognition beyond the Independent Spirit Awards, whose Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay honors both seem like Burnham's for the taking.

Regardless of whatever accolades do or do not come, the comical, comforting, and compassionate Eighth Grade demands to be seen by anyone who is, was, or soon will be fourteen years old.

Related Reviews:
Lady Bird • Rushmore • The Edge of Seventeen • The Graduate • The Florida Project • The Big Sick • Juno • Boyhood
Now in Theaters: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again • The Equalizer 2 • Won't You Be My Neighbor? • First Reformed • Tully • On Chesil Beach

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Reviewed July 22, 2018.



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