Eighth Grade

eighth_gradeSTARS4It was in 1996 that Director Todd Solondz released his Welcome to the Dollhouse. That seminal indie about growing up was a landmark film that captured the painfully insecure adolescence of a young girl. Few dramas capture the pain of that childhood stage in such a raw, unflinching manner. Now in 2018, we get comedian Bo Burnham’s first-time feature, Eighth Grade. Though nowhere near as bitter, the absolute credibility of the presentation comes as close as anything I’ve seen since.

Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is a 13-year-old teen navigating the gawky existence of middle school in the midst of social media.  Right from the start, she addresses the camera. Although she’s not talking to the audience directly, but rather to her YouTube subscribers. Her channel is sort of a testimonial of self-empowerment interspersed with copious uses of the words “like” and “um”.  She not the most polished speaker, but what she lacks in poise she makes up for in heart.  “Be Yourself!” is the kind of thing she champions before saying goodbye with her trademark signoff “Gucci!”  The simple phrase is at once precious and sad. She says it not because she’s living the life of the luxury brand, but because she’s trying to cater to people she hopes will like her.  Yes, there is a disparity to her affirmations.  She’s saying all the right things.  Be confident! Put yourself out there!  Yet her demeanor betrays a deeply felt anxiety.  We instantly embrace her fragile personality.

Let’s face it. This isn’t just eighth grade, this is the human experience and it speaks to everyone. We love this girl because she so desperately desires what we all crave: friends, acceptance, to be validated.  As adults, we learn to build a thicker skin.  Sure we aspire to be revered for who we are, but most of us adapt to a world that may not appreciate our uniqueness.  Kayla hasn’t adjusted to that way of thinking yet.  She isn’t celebrated by her fellow classmates, although she does win an award for “Most Quiet”.  The fact that a junior high would even hand out a “superlative” for the quality of being shy is sadly believable.  Kids can be insensitive and sometimes adults are oblivious to it.

Teen actress Elsie Fisher is a revelation as Kayla. She doesn’t appear to be putting on an act.  She simply exists and her achievement is a marvel of natural truth.  Her sincere, helpful single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton) simply wishes to engage his daughter at the dinner table. This is sadly a conversation in which she has no interest. Oh, what a cruel irony!  He wishes to relate to her in the same way she longs to connect with her peers. That alone makes the scene heartbreaking.  She shuts him out wearing headphones. He’s so sweet that her conduct should make us dislike her, but Kayla is such a fully formed individual.  She’s vulnerable and anxious and so uniquely human.  We make excuses in our own mind to justify her behavior.  We can understand her lack of desire to converse on cue.  It’s a terrific balancing act that ranks among the most honest performances of the entire year.

The fact that 27 year old, male Bo Burnham has so perfectly portrayed the angst of a 13-year-old girl is a miraculous talent. Burnham’s career began on YouTube back on 2006 which lead to a contract with Comedy Central Records.  There’s humor here to be sure, but it’s rather serious.  Eight Grade captures the utter authenticity of real life.  Her existence is made up of seemingly minor associations with other people. Kayla scores an invitation to a pool party thanks to the wishes of a well-meaning mom of the popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere).  What should be an enjoyable event is a minefield of social interactions with which to navigate.  A run-in with her crush (Luke Prael) is an awkward communication.  Aidan’s personality is unexceptional, but in her eyes, he’s the unattainable boy of her dreams.  Kennedy’s cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan) is at the party as well.  Their introduction to each other is a welcome relief.  Her presence has been acknowledged.  Later, an invite to shadow a high school student Olivia (Emily Robinson), results is an opportunity to hang out with Olivia and her friends at the mall.  The evening ends with an exchange with one of her friends (Daniel Zolghadri) that is so unbearable to watch I winced at the discussion.  There are a lot of cringey moments in Kayla’s navigation of junior high.  Her odyssey is merely the commonalities of life with which we have all experienced in some form.  If you haven’t, then consider yourself lucky.  For the rest of us, Eighth Grade is so real it hurts.

07-19-18

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13 Responses to “Eighth Grade”

  1. I’m really anxious to see this but also a tad apprehensive. My daughter starts eighth grade this year! Gulp!

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  2. I loved this movie for every single reason you list here plus probably more!! hahahaha And Elsie Fisher was just brilliant…

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    • We are in total agreement! One of the very best of the year.

      P.S. I saw you posted your review on July 17th. I don’t read reviews until I’ve had a chance to write my own (I don’t want to be influenced), but I wanted to comment on your write-up yesterday. You beat me to it! 🙂

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      • Oh I do the same..so no worries!! if I haven’t seen the movie – I don’t want any preconceived notions on it…unless it’s something I know I’m not going to bother with like Ant Man or something like that.. I will read them as I enjoy reading what so many good people on here write up! 🙂

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  3. First of all, this review is written brilliantly. My comments about the movie reflect what you wrote. I want to reiterate how great Elsie is. 4 stars

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  4. Eric Wilkinson Says:

    Finally caught up with this today – a strong film and the comparisons to WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (which I kinda prefer in fact; #SolondzApologist ) are apt – so cringey

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  5. I enjoyed this one but wasn’t as much a fan of it as seemingly everyone else is. On your scale I’d probably give it a 3.5. I’d like to see Bo Burnham continue filmmaking, especially if he plans on keeping to serious, dramatic works like this one. I also don’t like the fact that it’s rated R. Not only is it surprisingly tame for an R-rated film, with only a few F-words and like one racy bit, it’s a movie that people of Kayla’s age should really be seeing. It’s sad because I was her age when I started writing reviews and my parents wouldn’t have let me watch this back then given the R rating, lol.

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    • Yeah I don’t get the rating. The filmmaker should’ve trimmed the 5 F-bombs that pushed it into that territory. This is a PG-13 film.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Roger Ebert would’ve had a nightmare. I seem to remember him writing a piece on movies that appealed to a PG audiences but were rated PG-13 because of an F-bomb. This is the same ordeal, just shifted one rating up.

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