Entertainment » Movies

Eighth Grade

by Kevin Taft
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jul 13, 2018
'Eighth Grade'
'Eighth Grade'  

The awkward teenage years have never been more successfully and honestly realized than in YouTube Celebrity Bo Burnham's directorial debut "Eighth Grade." But while the writing is spot on and truly captures the current generation of kids and their parents, it is the performance of relative newcomer Elsie Fisher that makes the film shine.

Kayla (Fisher) is in her last week of eighth grade after three years of middle school that have proven to be a bit of a challenge. An apparent loner, Kayla is warm and kind to the outside world. But to her doting single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), she is distant and continually annoyed at his presence. With her mother having left them both years before, there is an untapped sadness in Kayla that makes her seem lost even as she projects that she's put together. She frequently uploads videos to her YouTube account that inelegantly speak to various issues young teenagers face, such as "having confidence" and "putting yourself out there," all things Kayla needs to learn herself. While she appears self-assured on camera, at school she is the epitome of awkward.

Plot-wise, not much happens in Burnham's feature debut, but plot isn't the point here. This is a slice of life that examines a week of a girl who is transitioning from tween to teen and is trying to find the strength to do so with poise and grace. She knows who she is when she's by herself, but when around others she clams up and stammers her way through social interactions. With her acne-prone face, she spends most of her time at home with her face in her phone and headphones drowning out the world.

Everything that happens to Kayla is relatable, uncomfortable, and as real as it gets. Every time you think the plot will go in a more clich├ęd direction, it doesn't. Thankfully. For example, we wonder if someone at school will see her YouTube videos and tease her. We expect her to be mocked at a party for doing karaoke. We wonder if the high school girl she has to shadow for a day will end up treating her poorly. We fear for her safety when she finds herself alone with an older boy. Everything we expect to happen would in a standard teen dramedy. But in Burnham's film, Kayla's life is a little more truthful and real. Things are still scary and hard, but they aren't always overly traumatic. Sometimes the little things are traumatic enough. Kayla feels invisible. And even when you'd expect her to be bullied or made fun of, something worse happens: She is ignored. And the pain that has been eating away at her is palpable on Fisher's face.

Fisher - best known as the voice of Agnes ("he's so fluffy!") in the "Despicable Me" films - is the real find her, and the force behind the movie. When they talk of roles that actors were born to play, this is Fisher's, hands down. I can't imagine anyone else in the role, and I don't want to. Fisher's performance - shot when she was fourteen years old and having literally just graduated eighth grade - is so honest and raw, you'd think you were watching a documentary. There is not a false note here. Every expression, downward glance, horrified reaction, and annoyed tone is flawless. And, honestly, it's a performance worthy of recognition during Awards Season.

A lot of kids her age would play her role like it was a Nickelodeon or Disney film: A little amped up and broad. Not Fisher. We know kids like her in all their clumsiness and naivety. She isn't playing a role, she's living it. She does things that are so spot on for kids her age it's uncanny. There's a moment where Kayla stands up for herself, but while she is finally reading the riot act to someone she's had issues with for a long time, she never makes eye contact with them. Even in her boldness there is a wall of insecurity that still exists, but she plays it in a way that we know that wall will eventually - someday - start to crumble.

Burnham's script is perceptive, and very much attuned to how kids act and the challenges they face in the age of social media. While his use of music was sometimes a bit distracting, this is an assured debut that marks a filmmaker we can get excited about.

In many ways, this is the anti-John Hughes John Hughes movie. While Hughes' films were also perceptive and touched on real and honest topics teenagers were dealing with, the humor and pathos were heightened just enough to make it not feel truly grounded in reality. "Eighth Grade" navigates similar terrain, but instead of taking it over-the-top, it stays grounded and true.

And with Fisher leading the way, it's one of the must-see films of the year. And I can't wait to see what she does next.

Eighth Grade

Thirteen-year-old Kayla endures the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence as she makes her way through the last week of middle school -- the end of her thus far disastrous eighth-grade year.

Info

Runtime :: 93 mins
Release Date :: Aug 03, 2018
Language :: Silent
Country :: United States

Cast

Kayla :: Elsie Fisher
Riley :: Daniel Zolghadri
Trevor :: Fred Hechinger
Aniyah :: Imani Lewis
Aiden :: Luke Prael
Kennedy :: Catherine Oliviere
Mark Day :: Josh Hamilton
Olivia :: Emily Robinson
Gabe :: Jake Ryan

Crew

Director :: Bo Burnham
Screenwriter :: Bo Burnham
Producer :: Scott Rudin
Producer :: Eli Bush
Producer :: Lila Yacoub
Producer :: Christopher Storer
Cinematographer :: Andrew Wehde
Film Editor :: Jennifer Lilly
Original Music :: Anna Meredith


Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.


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