Director: Bo Burnham
Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Bo Burnham is a good comedian. He has fun with the structure of typical stand-up shows, has his fair share of musical talent in addition to those bits, and even gets to act sometimes in films like Rough Night and The Big Sick. Does that mean he's my first choice to direct a movie? Of course not! But somebody let him, and I'm glad they did, because what he produced is far beyond what I could have ever expected from someone in his line of work. It's called Eighth Grade and now I'm gonna tell you about it.
I hope you like my book report.
Eighth Grade follows one week in the life of 13 year old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), specifically the final week of her eighth grade year. As she prepares to transition into high school, she deals with a fanciful childhood crush on classmate Aiden (Luke Prael), her quasi-bullying by rich snob Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), and a fraught relationship with her caring single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton). She also makes a series of inspirational YouTube advice videos, helping kids overcome problems with confidence, self esteem, and finding friends, skills she completely fails to utilize in her own life.
Wait, what? You're telling me people lie on social media?!
Who here has ever been in eighth grade? (I learned in eighth grade to always start off my writing with a strong hook.) If you have, then Eighth Grade is probably a movie you're going to relate to. Much like Lady Bird, the easiest possible film to compare it to, it's as universal as a film about a single white American could possibly be.
A lot of this is thanks to Elsie Fisher's incomparable performance. The 15-year-old actress has two years on her character, but judging by the layered portrayal she delivers, you'd think it was twenty. In order to get her character where she needs to go, Fisher has the detached and mature perspective of a veteran performer, but her actual age and experience allow her to keep Kayla completely grounded and human. She's completely recognizable as a textbook example of a 13-year-old, using tiny little physical and vocal details that most 13-year-olds wouldn't even notice they're doing. She also has the clarity to really sell the hormonal, emotional roller coaster that drives some of the funniest material in the film (look for an unforgettable scene with a banana, which is transcendently relatable and hilarious).
She's the anchor of Eighth Grade, but her most frequent scene partner is also her best: Josh Hamilton nails the well-meaning dad bit, dorky but paternal, and showing a vast world of interior emotion and fear. This is even more challenging given that we never spend a single scene alone with him. His entire performance is filtered through the emotions that he's trying to shield from Kayla, but you get a sense of depth to the character that just shouldn't be there, given the film's perspective, yet it is clear as day.
It's also dismayingly accurate as to how embarrassing dads can be at all times.
Not to bring Lady Bird into the conversation again, but I do think Eighth Grade shares even more DNA with the film in the fact that Burnham the writer is much more present and in the fray than Burnham the director. The direction is frills-free, on-the-ground, practically documentarian work that doesn't hustle to provide any particularly memorable imagery.
The only place where the non-acting elements really have come to play is the score, by Anna Meredith. It's a synth-inflected piece that confounded me at first with its anachronistic 80's sensibility, seemingly clashing with this thoroughly modern, of-the-moment piece. I'm used to these scores in retro genre features, but not something this low key and realistic. But then it hit me: What Meredith is doing is giving the movie a stripped-down, barely-there set of motifs that at key instances suddenly give way to huge swells of bouncy, almost orchestral synth melodies. These moments transform some relatively mundane scenes into vast emotional landscapes that mimic the sudden explosions of emotion that come with being a hormonal pre-teen. It's incredibly accurate and powerful work that drops you directly into Kayla's mind and refuses to let you leave.
That's the biggest element of this quiet little movie, but it's fitting that nothing else shows off quite as much. This film is very interior - a well-observed, bittersweet tale of someone who's trapped within their own fears and doubts and is fighting to get out. It's an incredibly punishing film, but also an incredibly loving one. It loves Kayla, it wants her to succeed, and so do you after spending more than thirty seconds with her. It's definitely not for faint of heart audience members who can't handle a healthy portion of secondhand embarrassment, but it is for everyone else.
TL;DR: Eighth Grade is a bittersweet film that captures the best and worst (mostly worst) moments of middle school beautifully.
Rating: 8/10Word Count: 852