EIGHTH GRADE – Review
Writer/director Bo Burnham’s EIGHTH GRADE is a remarkably true and honest portrait of a 13-year-old girl’s journey through the last year of middle school, a refreshingly accurate snapshot of early teen years that avoids all the teen movie stereotypes and presents life, zits and all, as it really is. But the film is further boosted by an appealing performance by Elsie Fisher as Kayla trying to negotiate this territory along with her single parent dad Mark (Josh Hamilton). Well-meaning Dad is desperate to connect with his only child, and Kayla is just as desperately ignoring her poor, adoring dad.
There is plenty that is laugh-out-loud funny in this film and just as many moments that are poignant, even heartbreaking. Some people make the kind of transition that Kayla is struggling to make in high school or even college but the experience is universally familiar, although Burnham steeps it in the contemporary culture of constant smart phone use, Snap Chat, and online videos. There is even an scene, featured in the trailer, where the high school students Kayla meets while shadowing one as part of her transition to that next educational level, have their own culture shock moment, aghast at the thought that Snap Chat became a thing when Kayla was in fifth grade.
Kayla makes little self help instructional videos that are really lessons for herself. Interestingly, Bo Burnham was best known as an amateur comedian on YouTube. Burnham makes a strong feature film debut with this touching comedy, which might be a star-making vehicle for lead Elsie Fisher.
Elsie Fisher is enormously charming as shy but determined Kayla. Fisher and Burnham are not afraid to show the real awkwardness of adolescence, and to frankly tackle issues. Unlike most teen movies, Kayla has problems with her complexion, she is slightly chubby, a bit shy and socially awkward. At school, we see her encounter mean girls at lunch and we watch her participate in “active shooters” training drills. Kayla copes with some of her social awkwardness by making YouTube videos in which she gives advice one how to deal with socially difficult situations, exactly the issues she is dealing with. In her videos, she is self-assured and relaxed, but anything but that in real social situations. She rolls her eyes at her well-meaning but clueless dad, barely interrupting posting “likes” on her phone to knowledge his presence at dinner. She seems to ignore his advice, but the videos reveal she is actually listening.
We see Kayla cope with snobby popular girl Olivia (Emily Robinson), whose mother pushes her to invite Kayla to her pool party birthday party, and Kayla’s crush on a cute boy at school, Aiden (Luke Prael). The pool party sequence is both very funny and painfully touching, sure to bring back memories of awkward teen-aged moments for viewers. Despite her shyness, Kayla does some bold things and considers other things that will make parents cringe.
All in all, EIGHTH GRADE is just an excellent film, well-acted, well-shot, well-written and perfectly paced. Parents, and those of us who were once teen-aged girls, will recognize the situations and issues dealt with so well in this excellent drama. This is the kind of true-to-life approach one wishes all coming of age films would take. EIGHTH GRADE is worth seeing, for its honest approach to a difficult time in life well experience, and also for its wonderful lead performance by Elsie Fisher.
EIGHTH GRADE opens in St. Louis on Friday, July 27, at the Tivoli and Plaza Frontenac theaters.t. Louis on Friday, July 27, at the Tivoli and Plaza Frontenac theaters.
RATING: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars