#REVIEW: “EIGHTH GRADE”
Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is excited to start her first year of high school. But she needs to graduate and survive the last week of middle school to get there.
While it may not sound like much of a plot, first-time Writer/Director Bo Burnham has crafted a genuinely moving and authentic portrait of modern adolescence with Eighth Grade. The young Comedian takes his time telling the story, framing each moment with Kayla’s sense of wonder and curiosity. Where others would amp up the nostalgia and yearning for those innocent, carefree years, Burnham instead hones-in on the awkwardness of being a teenager and the horror related to the unknown. He also stays incredibly contemporary, emphasizing Kayla’s relationship with her cell phone and social media feeds, allowing the Film to feel very much a product of its time.
You may have read this far and immediately assume that Eighth Grade is a completely alienating and otherworldly experience for the older generation not accustomed to the draws of Snapchat or Instagram (teenagers don’t use Facebook anymore as one parent savagely reminds us). But the Film only uses these elements to show how disconnected and lonely Kayla feels. She wants to make an impression and desperately wants to make friends any way she can, even if it means making self-help videos on YouTube for all ten of her fans or showing up at a pool party she would rather skip. There is an inherent universality and humour to many of these moments, and Burnham is attuned to this at all times. It may look a little bit different than we remember, but these are experiences we can all empathize and understand because we all went through them.
And if you did not, then consider yourself lucky. Because the rest of us did, and then some.
I could keep praising Burnham and his natural, hilariously-awkward style effusively, but I would be doing a disservice to the Film’s breakout star, Elsie Fisher. She commands the screen from the very start, taking us on her journey through the torture of growing up. We chart her ups and downs, her triumphs and failures, and every awkward moment in-between – and believe me, there are plenty of cringe worthy moments (including one tense scene where I was literally chewing on my fingers, riddled with anxiety). We hang onto all of these scenes because of Fisher. Her natural performance feels genuine and lived in. She is this character, and her emotional range is raw and real. Wisely, she never allows Kayla to look for pity, even at her most fragile and intimate of moments. She just lets her optimism shine through and becomes all the more aspirational for it.
While the rest of the young cast give the Film an authentic edge, the standout supporting player is Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s single dad Mark. We only catch glimpses of him in passing (much like the rest of the adults when they are not dabbing or mentioning how ‘lit’ a Sex Ed lesson is going to be), but he has a impact on every scene. He acts very much as the older audience surrogate, trying his best to make sense of everything Kayla is going through. He is quietly effective, and does a brilliant job playing off Fisher in the Film’s most devastating moments. Hamilton could have just been the token parental character, but his presence elevates Mark to being so much more than that.
I doubt you will see another Film as raw or as genuine as Eighth Grade this summer. In his feature directorial debut, Burnham has created a moving and deeply funny portrait of what it means to be a teenager growing up alongside social media. And his muse, Fisher, helps deliver one of the most organic and intimate performances I have ever seen from a young actor. You will laugh, cry and cringe your way through Eighth Grade not because you have to, but because you want to. We have all been on the same journey as Kayla when we were teenagers – you just might wish you did a better job blocking those memories out before watching the Film.
Elevation Pictures release EIGHTH GRADE in Toronto on Friday, July 20, 2018
and additional cities starting Friday, August 3, 2018.