Eighth Grade masterfully captures the emotional horror of being a Generation Z middle-schooler, yet tells a universally relatable coming of age story.
One of the most painfully authentic cinematic portraits of life as a young teenager in recent memory (if not ever), Eighth Grade marks actor/filmmaker Bo Burnham's feature-length debut behind the camera. The movie has been generating enthusiastic buzz since its premiere at the 2018 Film Festival back in January, and with good reason. Eighth Grade cuts to the heart of just how emotionally unconformable adolescence can be with surgical precision, at the same time that it examines issues that are specific to life in the twenty-first century. The result is a film that manages to be charming, tender, funny, and squirmy-inducingly realistic all at once. Eighth Grade masterfully captures the emotional horror of being a Generation Z middle-schooler, yet tells a universally relatable coming of age story.
Elsie Fisher stars in Eighth Grade as Kayla Day, an eighth grader who has one week left of middle-school before she graduates. While Kayla spends much of her free time filming and posting videos where she offers motivational advice to YouTube, she tends to keep to herself in school - enough to be dubbed "Most Quiet" by her classmates - and struggles to make friends. Similarly, Kayla's dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) has a difficult time connecting with her at home, in no small part because Kayla would much rather focus on reaching out to people through social media than talk to Mark about her day to day life.
As Kayla prepares to leave middle-school behind her, she also makes an effort to finally climb out of her shell. However, whether attending popular girl Kennedy's (Catherine Oliviere) birthday party or talking to her crush Aiden (Luke Prael), nothing seems to go Kayla's way and she mostly winds up being horribly embarrassed. Nevertheless, Kayla doesn't give up and does her best to follow her own inspirational advice, for the first time.
Written and directed by Burnham, Eighth Grade is so effective at pulling viewers into a middle-schooler's mentality that it may leave adults wondering if they really stopped being their ungainly 13-14 year old self at heart and have merely been pretending otherwise, all these years. As much as Burnham deserves to be recognized for this achievement, Fisher (who voiced Agnes in Despicable Me 1&2) is equally worthy of praise for her performance in the film. Thanks to her work here, Kayla comes off as being convincingly aloof, anxious, and angry in ways that most onscreen teenagers simply are not. Naturally, this makes the character utterly endearing and, at the same time, lets the audience feel every emotional triumph and failure in her life as strongly as she does (no matter how small or insignificant they may be in the grander scheme of things).
Eighth Grade is further aided in its efforts to tap into Kayla's state of mind by Burnham's willingness to include every visceral detail of middle-school life imaginable, whether that means showing teachers' desperate efforts to seem "hip", having students engage in all sorts of uncouth behavior in the middle of class, or allowing everyone to look as ordinary as they would in the real world (complete with bad haircuts and facial acne). Burnham and his cinematographer Andrew Wehde further photograph everything with unfiltered texture, yet still manage to seamlessly integrate more stylized camerawork into the proceedings here. In general, Eighth Grade is surprisingly imaginative in its craftsmanship, especially when it comes to making the scenes where Kayla is interacting with others through social media feel cinematic. Anna Meredith's exuberant score is also worth singling out, seeing as it livens up much of the film and gives it more personality than it might have possessed otherwise.
Moreover, as much as Fisher is the star here, Eighth Grade's supporting cast is essential to maintaining the film's sense of verisimilitude, in their own right. The young actors here are convincing across the board, including those in minor roles like Jake Ryan (playing Kennedy's cousin Gabe) or Emily Robinson as Olivia, the cheery high school whom Kayla shadows for a day. Meanwhile, on the grown-up side of the equation, Hamilton is similarly excellent as Mark. Indeed, his well-intentioned, but often clunky attempts to support Kayla throughout the film ring true, as do his (sometimes woefully) misguided stabs at starting a conversation with his daughter.
Refreshingly, Eighth Grade never abandons its brutally honest approach either, even when it takes increasingly dramatic turns (to give its narrative a more definite form) on the way to its ending. Similarly, the film takes a critical look at how teenagers use social media tools (like Snapchat filters) and how much time they spend on their phones, yet it's never preachy nor particularly interested in making a grand statement about how young people socialize in the digital era. Instead, Eighth Grade is more interested in observing how life online can be as alienating, enjoyable, or challenging as someone's day to day journey in the real world. Burnham's film very much breaks new ground by portraying Generation Z teenagers and their lifestyles in such an emphatic light.
Like The Edge of Seventeen and Lady Bird (to name a couple of better-known recent examples), Eighth Grade tells a captivating and insightful story about growing up from the perspective of a teenaged girl. At the same time, Burnham's film reflects the unpleasant reality of that life experience so meticulously that audiences may find themselves laughing and being utterly horrified in equal measures during any one scene. It's certainly not the most relaxed time one can have watching a movie, but it is a transfixing one. Some might even find it to be therapeutic in the way that it lets them confront any lingering trauma they have from their time as a middle-schooler. In a summer that has already been full of great indie films and Sundance veterans (see also Sorry to Bother You, Leave No Trace), this is another must-see at the arthouse.
Eighth Grade is now playing in NY/LA and will expand to theaters across the U.S. over the coming weeks. It is 94 minutes long and is rated R for language and some sexual material.
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