Any adult will tell you that middle school is one of the most awful parts of adolescence. Faces explode with acne, hormones are raging, conversations are awkward, and everyone sucks. So comedian Bo Burnham decided to make his feature writing and directorial debut recounting just how awful that time in all of our lives was with a wonderful, lively movie called Eighth Grade, and just like that we have a fresh new voice on the page and behind the camera.
Eighth Grade follows the extremely endearing and awkward Kayla (played by newcomer Elsie Fisher) during her final week of the last year of middle school before she heads off into high school. While Kayla may pretend that she has her act together in a series of undeniably teenage advice videos on YouTube about being yourself, she struggles everyday to be something more than the most quiet kid in her graduating class. Kayla is also tethered to her phone and laptop, which includes Instagram, finding advice from other YouTubers, jamming out to bubbly techno pop at the dinner table and loving Snapchat filters. But that can be said of nearly every single awkward teenager in this movie.
Bo Burnham takes us through the trials and tribulations of young Kayla in a manner not dissimilar from recent female-driven coming-of-age darlingslike Edge of Seventeen and Lady Bird. But what sets it apart is going back just a little bit further back in adolescence to this pivotal moment in Kayla’s life in such a bona fide fashion. Despite being a 27-year old male, Burnham has somehow perfectly tapped into, um, like, the mind of a 13-year old girl, or whatever, and um, the terrifying, like, experience that comes with it. And it’s not just as simple as filling dialogue with those hollow filler words you hear teens (and some less fortunate adults) spout off all the time. Burnham just perfectly understands life as a Millennial teen, and the script feels like it was lifted from the conversations of real teens somewhere in the United States.
Throughout this week of Eighth Grade, we see Kayla begrudgingly going to the birthday party of a rich, stuck-up popular girl, stumbling over her words as she has a pitiful conversation with her dreamy classmate Aiden (Luke Prael), getting annoyed with her pleasantly-trying-too-hard father (Josh Hamilton) and shadowing a high school senior girl named Olivia (Emily Robinson). All of these moments come with all the awkwardness and angst you’d expect from this ignominious time in Kayla’s life, and it couldn’t be more delightful.
While Burnham certainly deserves plenty of credit for this movie being an indie gem, much of the credit goes to Elsie Fisher. Though you might recognize her voice due to her role as Agnes in the Despicable Me franchise, this is a breakthrough performance for Fisher. Sure, she’s helped by the fact that she shot this movie during the summer between her own eighth grade and freshman years, but she does so much more than just be a teenager. Feigning a lack of confidence and portraying awkwardness isn’t easy to pull off without overdoing it. But everything Fisher does feels natural. While the “ums” and “likes” scattered throughout her everyday speech may seem like a default setting for a 13-year old, these elements were scripted by Burnham, and it’s a testament to Fisher’s work as an actress that they don’t feel scripted.
Also making this movie standout is a thumping, beeping, blasting electronic score by composer Anna Meredith. Though there are a couple instances when it feels a little invasive and doesn’t quite fit the scene, most of the time it’s a perfect companion to what’s happening on screen, especially for the hilarious slow-motion shots when Kayla stares in awe of Aiden from a distance.
Eighth Grade might seem like just a typical coming of age movie that comes out of Sundance every year, and in many ways it’s exactly that. But it’s also a coming of age narrative that we haven’t really seen presented in this light before. Whether it’s due to Elsie Fisher’s lovable turn as Kayla or Bo Burnham’s frustratingly accurate portrayal of life as a teen, Eighth Grade is full of life, even if it’s from the terrible teenage years of that life.
Eighth Grade is playing in select theaters starting today.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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