‘Eighth Grade’ Review

Everything about Eighth Grade feels like a tiny miracle. It’s a miracle that stand-up comedian Bo Burnham could make the transition to filmmaking so seamlessly. It’s a miracle that he had this insight into the mind of a thirteen-year-old girl. It’s a miracle that Elsie Fisher could give this level of performance at such a young age. And it’s a miracle that any film, regardless of who’s involved, could so perfectly capture the realities of adolescence in the modern age. It’s a miraculous film, through and through.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is about to graduate from middle school. Despite her passion for creating motivational vlogs on YouTube, she struggles forming connections with her classmates, due to her own issues and a generational reliance on social media. Encouraged by her single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton), Kayla sets out to become the person she wants to be, both online and in reality.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Burnham’s career that the terrifying reality of modern Internet culture would be the focus of his first film. Burnham launched his career in 2006 at the age of sixteen, writing comedic songs dealing with taboo topics through clever wordplay, and he quickly became the second coming of Tom Lehrer, thanks to his incredible writing abilities. As one of the prototypes for the Internet age, Burnham has insight into the world that has developed, and an inherent edge when it comes to satirizing it. Eighth Grade serves almost as a guide to the modern world, demonstrating how the rise of Internet culture and humanity’s dependence on our phones can be both a prison and escape. It’s a terrifying world that the teenagers of this film inhabit, where the fear isn’t that your fellow students will bully you – it’s that they won’t acknowledge you. Burnham has a clear understanding of the way that technology has adapted the teenage wasteland, and how it has created a more vain, more apathetic, and more painful void for his characters to inhabit – and at their most vulnerable age, no less. To serve this purpose, he includes montages of technologically addicted tweens watching makeup tutorials, sex tutorials, lifestyle tutorials, you name it, just to understand how to get through the g*ddamn day. It’s painful, it’s frightening, and as someone who grew up on the brink of the generation prior to this boom, I can confirm it’s alarmingly realistic. However, while Burnham’s impression of the technological landscape is mostly a negative one, he does understand the positive ramifications of this world, particularly on the lovable Kayla. For while Kayla’s vlogs aren’t particularly successful, and they are but another thread in the tapestry of lifestyle videos made by someone still trying to figure out life themselves, they serve a unique purpose, both for the audience and for Kayla as a character. Kayla’s advice, stuttered and sheltered as it is, is often fairly sound, and it often serves as a stand-in for what her character should do, as well as demonstrate what it would take for Kayla to break out of her shell. Whether Kayla follows the advice or not, it allows the audience to hear her inner monologue in a fresh and creative way, and allows us to cheer for her successes, mourn for her defeats, and feel for her as she continues to get back up again.

Of course, while the film is inherently specific to the modernity of current life, Burnham is an intelligent enough director to find a perennial undercurrent to the middle school experience, allowing it to feel timeless regardless of how specific his references are. Take the opening scene, for instance, which serves as a masterpiece of painfully realistic filmmaking. As we watch Kayla make a video about being yourself, we get to witness her stammer, stumble, and pause her way through the monologue in the honest, horrific speech pattern of a true teenager. It’s painful to listen to, yes, but that’s only because that was the way we used to stumble and stammer through an explanation of an important topic. It’s a trainwreck to watch, but it’s also a little masterpiece. Another terrific moment appears when Kayla is invited to a pool party by the mother of the most popular girl in school, Kennedy. Yes, it’s the mother who is speaking, but Burnham keeps the camera squarely in Kayla’s POV, meaning that the mother blurs into the background as Kennedy apathetically texts and ignores her. While the important dialogue is the invite to the pool party, we, like Kayla, can’t help but focus on the shunning of our peers. It’s an excellent insight into the selfishness, anxiety, and humiliation of being a teenager. Really, every detail about the middle school experience is spot-on from beginning to end. The hallways are filled with the sounds of snapping rubber bands and teasing, and the children are clothed in Hollister, American Eagle, and Abercrombie. The adults definitely care about the children, but instead of trying to actually relate to them, they simply try to adapt to the lingo to show they’re still “with it” and “hip” – the principal dabs, the Sex Ed teacher uses words like “lit,” and the band teacher has the world’s longest, creepiest rat-tail. Every detail rings true, even if the exact archetypes weren’t something we literally experienced. Hell, even the presentation of a school shooting drill, which feels like it should be a bigger deal, and would be presented as one in any other film, is more of a dark, throwaway joke here than any sort of preachy screed. However, Burnham’s understanding of Generation Z reaches far beyond the hallways of Junior High. He consistently finds the pulse of the highs and lows of being a teenager, from finding the courage to sing karaoke and bonding with people over shared common interests to being a d*ck to your perfectly charming dad (to be fair, it’s hormones, not a character flaw). And when the film does delve into some terrifyingly serious sh*t, Burnham has the good sense to drag it on FOREVER while never making it feel haunting or exploitative for the audience. He’s simply mimicking the terrors and fears that we would feel at such an age. Basically, this film understands that life isn’t about big, absurd narratives; it’s about the little things, the tiny moments that shouldn’t be important, but we make them to be.

However, what’s truly remarkable about this movie isn’t just how tightly the finger is on the pulse of everyday teenage life; it’s how brilliantly Burnham brings this entire project together on a technical scale. It was evident from his early videos that Burnham was a gifted writer, and some of his stand-up routines displayed a theatrical directorial ability, like his pantomimed “Welcome To The Show” or his avant-garde “We Think We Know You.” However, it is still a shock how well he can translate those gifts into a creatively modern feature film. Watching him play around with the excruciating realities of everyday life is the type of horror I love in a film, and the fact he can match it with his direction is exhilarating. Every moment of the film, from the traumatic to the poignant, has an undercurrent of awkward humor that allows the audience some form of release no matter how unbearable the material gets. Outside of Burnham’s direct hand, perhaps the strongest aspect of the film is the editing. Editor Jennifer Lilly and Burnham work together to deploy a series of tricks to help the audience get inside Kayla’s mind, as well as to remember the horrors of being thirteen. Whenever crush Aiden (Luke Prael) enters the film, he is greeted with slow motion and lustful looks from Kayla, always to great effect. A sequence where Kayla enters a traumatic pool party is shot like a horror film, tracking shots and dramatic score and all. And there’s a subtle sequence shot in complete silence that is, and I do not use this word lightly, stunning. It will destroy you. And I haven’t even touched on the music, be it the perfectly utilized EDM score by Anna Meredith or the smartly placed “Orinoco Flow” during a montage of Internet use. I mean, from top down, this is marvelous filmmaking, through and through.

I’ve spent a lot of this review talking about Burnham’s directorial abilities, but to be fair, he’s still second-fiddle on this project. Every frame of this film belongs to Elsie Fisher. What Fisher does here is nothing short of remarkable. Everything about her performance seems natural, from her perfectly timed stammers to her inserted “likes” to her hopes, fears, dreams, wants, and needs. She will lift you up and break your heart. I’ve never seen a performance quite like this one. I honestly don’t know if I ever will again. It’s a next level performance from an actress I can only assume will do great things going forward. She alone is worth the price of admission. However, if you need more convincing about the cast, there’s also Josh Hamilton, who plays the perfect single dad. He’s dorky, but supportive; lame, but awesome. He’s a joy whenever he’s onscreen, and he has a stuttered monologue at the end of the film reminiscent of the best scene in Magic Mike (that doesn’t involve Matthew McConaughey, that is). He and Kayla make a wonderful dream team that bolsters the film even in the event of a rare misstep. Of the teen actors, I’ve already mentioned Luke Prael, who is the perfect portrayal of a teen boy at that age. He had me suffering PTSD flashbacks and howling with laughter at the same time. And of the teen girls, Catherine Olivere is spot-on as the apathetic popular girl Kennedy, while Emily Robinson is absolutely marvelous as older girl Olivia, who tries to take Kayla under he wing. You’ll spend your entire time watching her hoping the film doesn’t attempt a twist with her character, and it never does. But of all the teenagers in the film, I want to give a shout-out to Daniel Zolghadri. Zolghadri has a difficult job because he needs to seem completely nice and truly AWFUL, all at the same time. It’s a delicate balance that many older actors struggle with, but he walks the line with general ease. Really, the only actor who I had any quibbles with in the entire film is Jake Ryan as Gabe, a socially awkward kid that Kayla befriends, but if I’m being honest, that may be because the actor hit a little too close to home for me. I prefer at least a slight buffer between my fictional characters and my own personality. So while the character didn’t work for me, please note my potential biases going in.

I had the opportunity to see Eighth Grade with Burnham in attendance, and before the film he noted that he wanted this film to capture “the scariness of eighth grade and the scariness of living now.” He absolutely achieved his mission statement, but he also surpassed it to dive into something much deeper. Burnham and Fisher have found a way to capture every iota of the middle school experience in one ninety-minute film. It’s a film where the stakes are low, and yet the results matter a great deal; where a simple exchange of words can be the most painful moment of all, while a simple hug can be the most powerful. I first saw Eighth Grade back in May, and I held off posting this review until now. Partially, this was because I wanted to wait until the actual release date. However, another part of me wanted to sit with this film and figure out how I truly felt about it – would I forget about it in a few days, even with my notes, or would it resonate and I would come to appreciate it more and more? I’m glad I did, because in the course of these few months, I’ve bumped this film up two letter grades, just based on its own appeal. This is a charming, wonderful outing, and I cannot recommend it enough.

A

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