Grade A Time Capsule: Bo Burnham’s Offers Torturous Last Week of Middle School.
Eighth Grade is literally eighth grade in hyphenate-comedian Bo Burnham’s resonant directorial debut. Taking viewers into the headspace of his shy protagonist (realistically adorned by Elsie Fisher), final week of Middle School with that unforgettable gauntlet of yearbook superlatives, awkward social functions and the dreaded high school Shadow Day is offered with intentionally cringe-worthy moments, envelope-pushing unexpected laughs, and some disturbing—but fully appropriate—darkness. After a few warm-up laps, the wise beyond his years Burnham hits his stride, takes big bites with Kayla Day’s subjective POV becoming our own.
Tonally, Eighth Grade is a crowd-pleaser, although fans of Burnham’s caustic humor may diss it as too ‘safe.’ At first, the stakes feel low; but as we get to know Kayla, we remember: back in middle school, stakes never felt higher. On the cusp of learning that she has something to offer, Kayla spends her free time glued to screens. Her mirror is littered with self-motivational sticky notes. She has a YouTube Vlog where she offers insights to a tiny following: “The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy.” Eager to help is Kayla’s embarrassing Dad, played by Josh Hamilton in peak loveable, goofy dadliness. There’s no Mom in the picture; the father-daughter scenes form the film’s emotional core. Perhaps most impressive is Burnham’s respect for his ‘source material.’ Like a medium channeling spirits, he gives us spot-on prepubescent drivel (and truth). Kayla’s rambling YouTube monologues have improvised energy, but—as the 27-year-old filmmaker is quick to admit—they are in fact a conduit for his own inner eighth-grader.
A large part of the film’s creditability lies in its specificity: the attention given to online posturing; the dopamine rush of sending the perfect Snapchat; the clueless arrogance of school administrators. Even the more stylized moments ring true: a pool party plays like a horror movie, but feels like cinéma vérité. Kayla’s classmates are a justified cause for terror—and when her middle school crush arrives, thundering synth palpitations herald his entrance. Anna Meredith’s crazy, synth-heavy soundtrack is also worthy of note. Rooted somewhere between a video game and Giorgio Moroder, it turns Kayla’s trauma into an operatic journey.
Previously unknown aside from her voice acting in the Despicable Me series, Elise Fisher is a star-in-the-making. Her endearing, word-stumbling awkwardness gives Kyle Mooney a run for his money — Eighth Grade will surely invite other comparisons to last year’s excellent Brigsby Bear: both films were first features by former YouTube stars; both echo the angst of filmmaker Todd Solondz. In many ways, Fisher is the not-yet-bloomed version of 17-year-old Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird.
Despite its first-feature flaws, Eighth Grade is a near-perfect meditation on the most awkward age. Loosely paced, à la Lady Bird or Linklater: more a series of vignettes than a typical three-act structure. Yes, it’s a more-than-worthy first feature brimming with ideas—perhaps too many. Is it an affectionate critique of adolescence? A study on our relationship with technology? A self-love letter aimed at insecure adults? At its worst, it’s winsome, even joyful; at its best, it takes risks. The kind you take before you’re old enough to know better. The kind you get talked out of in film school. The result? Moments of middle school genius. A montage of social-media escapism set to Enya singing “Sail Away.” A shot of Kayla’s face half-eclipsed by a laptop screen. Kayla’s phone call, a long take without cuts, pacing back and forth in her bedroom. A time capsule within a time capsule. And more.
Reviewed on January 19th at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival – U.S. Dramatic Competition. 94 Minutes