MOVIE REVIEW: Eighth Grade

(Image courtesy of A24)

(Image courtesy of A24)


Official selection of the 6th Chicago Critics Film Festival


Eighth Grade opens on a vlog entry being recorded by Kayla Day, played by grown-up Despicable Me voice Elsie Fisher. Her video is part of her personal YouTube channel series called “Kayla’s Tips,” where she talks with the purpose to inspire, speaking about hurdling social challenges and how to engage and interact with others. The message is simple and universal, even if the delivery medium is all 21st century.

LESSON #1: BE YOURSELF — Friendships can be found by people who value the person of the chosen connection, not the talent, status, name, or standing on the outside. There is no “fake it, ’til you make it.” It’s “you do you, girl,” with all of the “like,” “literally,” and “can’t even” statements along the way.

Broadcasting this character introduction out into to the interwebs, even with the endless run-on sentences of speech, and seeing her living spaces peppered with Post-It Note pep talk nuggets and reminders, one would think, gosh, Kayla Day has it all figured out. This girl surely gets it and the upcoming film following this young lady would bounce and bound with the confidence and pluck she presents online. To see that brightness wither away as Eighth Grade transitions to the school setting showing an uncomfortably shy Kayla creeping through her hallways interacting with no one stands as the first swerve of many in Bo Burnham’s debut directorial effort.

LESSON #2: NO, SERIOUSLY, BE YOURSELF — Take your own advice, Miss Day. Don’t shrivel your inner values to conformity that doesn’t suit you. Don’t buy into the “what’s stupid is cool” and “what’s weird is fine” mentalities and sources of peer pressure. When you clearly show in your creativity that you know the right route towards social connection but choose otherwise, you’re not helping your cause.

Trotting through this final week of the middle school minefield filled with emotions and impulses, Eighth Grade endeavors to tell the ponderous plight of this current connected generation and nails it with astonishing honesty and freshness. Breaking its own sense of slouch, this film stands as one of the year’s biggest and most satisfying surprises.

Voted “Most Quiet” and crushing on a sex-starved boy (Luke Prael) out of her league yet beneath her good heart, Kayla juggles her online self and her school self through several peaks and valleys in an effort to fit in and be ready for high school. Like many of her fellow teens and pre-teens of the documentation generation, Kayla is constantly attached to her device and inundated with her chosen social media apps to observe and achieve some warped level of pop culture coolness (hence the vlog). She is the unassuming daughter of a single father Mark (a warm turn from TV and stage actor Josh Hamilton of 13 Reasons Why and Madam Secretary) who means well but is lost trying to know where to help and where to hold back in his DIY attempts at heart-to-heart conversations.

Powered by strong electronic music from Anna Meredith, the film’s brilliant flow of episodic scenarios thrusts Kayla into social situations spanning from angsty awkwardness all the way to cringe-worthy cautionary territory worthy of parental nightmares. More often than not, Kayla’s results, as seen through Andrew Wehde’s observational camera gazes, are embarrassing fails that only lead to a thicker shell.

LESSON #3: ACHIEVING FRIENDSHIP — One shining ray of hope arrives in Olivia (Transparent’s Emily Robinson), the high school shadow assigned to Kayla. Her presence gives the attachment-starved middle schooler a welcoming soul for start-up bonding. Eighth Grade takes on a whole new levity when this trophy is won. Every kid needs a good victory in the friend department at this age.

Elsie Fisher’s inquisitive and revelatory performance is, without question, one of the best youth performances of this decade. Her tone of wavering conviction conveys the embattled combination of anxiety and mettle matching this generation perfectly. Fisher is altogether captivating and crushing to observe and celebrate. Choose celebrate and get this girl an Oscar nomination this winter. She and the suburban mob of virtual unknowns behave with and capture the rapid fire world of banter as these youths digitally decipher and make fun sense of the world. Their often-misunderstood energy and underlying spirit is bracingly infectious.

No matter your age, Eighth Grade presents a cultural conversation that needs to be had. Borne from the impulses of internet anxiety and those frequently unfiltered feelings, writer/director Bo Burnham champions those silent personal struggles. Who knew a middle-aged white male stand-up comedian could nail that so well? Avoiding the Hughesian tropes of the genre, his sharp writing and open-ended style purposefully maintains a low nostalgia level unlike other coming of age films that proudly plant their flag above a time capsule and celebrate some bygone age. This one stays anxious because, in the bigger picture, those memories are the ones that don’t go away and never willingly get recalled for reflection. That said, the belly laughs, gasps, and tears permeate around every turning point, making for daring and brilliant work for a first-timer.

LESSON #4: THE TEENAGE YEARS ARE A SHARED EXPERIENCE FOR TEENS AND THEIR PARENTS — Dropped jaws, bashfulness, winces, worries, and all, this dynamite film needs to be required viewing for the teens out there, especially girls, of these complicated and confusing present times. And the people that should be joining them in the next closest seats are their parents who need their eyes and hearts opened as well. Adults, this Eighth Grade may not be your plight or a mirror to your own middle school experience, but you can engage and empathize easily with its challenges. It goes both ways to mend a “we don’t know them/they don’t get us” valley of separated understanding between parent and child.

LESSON #5: IT ALL GOES BACK TO ENGAGEMENT AND EMPATHY — All of the connections built by teens during these formative years, the peer ones that last and the adult ones that stay strong, come from a place of those two “e” words that stoke shared interest and mutual understanding. A wise and willing audience for Eighth Grade knows and accepts two truths. First, that social challenges in real life could be, and often are, worse than a movie shows, and, second, those same apprehensions absolutely have the ability to get better for all involved with maturity and, again, efforts towards engagement and empathy. That’s where the conversations about this movie need to go.