Eighth Grade (United States, 2018)

July 28, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Eighth Grade Poster

I think most people remember eighth grade, although rarely (I imagine) with a great deal of fondness. The blessing (and curse) of Eighth Grade is that writer/director Bo Burnham remembers it too. With this film, he accomplishes two things: candidly recalling the essence of what it’s like during that turbulent time of life, when one is still a child yet on the cusp of adulthood, and showing how, despite all the advances in technology, the underlying angst and confusion hasn’t changed. Kayla (Elsie Fisher), despite her borderline-addiction to her cellphone and the YouTube videos she creates, is still as fundamentally disconnected and frightened as most of us were ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years ago. If anything, social media simply makes it easier to sink into self-doubt and amplify a lack of self-confidence.

Despite having the best of intentions, Hollywood would have told this story differently. Burnham keeps it real. That means not giving in to an innate desire to have everything work out perfectly for the lead character. Her YouTube videos aren’t an overnight sensation. Much as I love Pump Up the Volume, it falls prey to this – the (anti)hero gets his moment of glory at the end. That’s fantasy. Equally, Eighth Grade doesn’t fall victim to the sense of self-loathing that permeates Todd Solondz’s perceptive Welcome to the Dollhouse. Life isn’t as good as studio pictures would have us believe nor as bleak as filmmakers like Solondz see it. It’s somewhere in between. That between is what Eighth Grade captures. There are ups and downs. There’s sadness and joy. And there’s even some comedy (the bit with the fellatio lessons and the banana is funny, especially when Dad shows up in the kitchen). The ending is more of a stopping point than a conclusion. There’s hope for the future but no certainty.

Eighth Grade is more of a slice-of-life motion picture than a coming-of-age story. The time frame doesn’t allow for the latter. Taking place over a two-week period at the end of middle school, the film chronicles various developments in Kayla’s life that, although they may not have a long-term impact, define her day-to-day existence at the age of 14. She develops a crush on bad boy Trevor (Fred Hechinger), who doesn’t know she exists. She becomes friendly with Olivia (Emily Robinson), a sincere and open high school senior with a creepy guy pal, Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), who thinks playing Truth or Dare one-on-one with Kayla is a good get-to-know-you approach. She tries desperately to interact with popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), who wants nothing to do with the awkward dweeb. And, like all kids her age, she fails to connect with her well-meaning but clueless father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who just doesn’t get it.

Most movies about teenagers (especially those from John Hughes) focus on the geeks and the outcasts. Think about it. When was the last time a funny, popular, well-adjusted 14-year old was at the center of a film? They’re always the villains or, at best, the supporting characters. Why? Because all of us, even those who had dozens of friends and were voted “most likely to succeed,” see ourselves in retrospect as victims and exiles. For eighth graders, low self-confidence and poor self-image are epidemic, even for the pretty people. Consequently, most viewers, regardless of how others saw them in middle school, will relate to Kayla. Man, woman, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight (or in between) – everyone will recognize familiar qualities in this quiet, insecure girl. That’s why Eighth Grade works…that, and the performance of Elsie Fisher.

It’s impossible to talk about the film and not discuss the dead-on accuracy of Fisher’s portrayal. Kayla has a lived-in feel and that’s not surprising because the actress was the same age as the character when she filmed the movie. Eighth Grade’s verisimilitude results from the fusion of Burnham’s nostalgic-free approach and Fisher’s honest work, which feels too open and truthful to be purely acting. Fisher inhabits Kayla fully, shredding clichés and stereotypes in an effort to uncover something deeper. Like most teenagers, the actress has acne and the pimples and zits, which might be a detriment for other roles, highlight her normalcy. For most teenagers, skin imperfections are one of the great scourges of life, yet it’s rarely shown on film (and, when it is, it’s usually as a punchline). This isn’t Fisher’s first film – she did voice work (as Agnes) in the first two DespicableMe films and appeared in both Dirty Girl and McFarland, U.S.A., but this role eclipses them all.

During the course of Eighth Grade, Kayla makes a variety of YouTube videos. In them, she’s seen as happy and confident – the opposite of her personality when she’s not in front of the camera. Burnham uses these strategically, using her voiceovers to “narrate” aspects of her real life that are in direct contrast to what she’s advocating. The message is clear about how teenagers in the age of social media have two different personas: a virtual one and an in-person one. That’s a new layer of complexity that those of us who grew up in a different era didn’t have to navigate.

If there’s a knock on Eighth Grade, it’s that it feels too true-to-life to be entirely comfortable. It’s like reliving a period you might prefer to pretend never happened. Unsentimental, non-glamorized, and unclouded by the usual overlay of rose-colored nostalgia, this is a raw but rewarding motion picture. One hopes that, when it comes time to hand out awards and make “best of” lists at the end of the year, some people’s memories will stretch back to mid-summer. It’s hard to imagine that Eighth Grade won’t be as deserving of consideration as the many bigger, splashier productions sure to come along in Oscar season.

Eighth Grade (United States, 2018)

Director: Bo Burnham
Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Fred Hechinger, Catherine Oliviere, Daniel Zolghadri
Home Release Date: 2018-10-09
Screenplay: Bo Burnham
Cinematography: Andrew Wehde
Music: Anna Meredith
U.S. Distributor: A24
Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2018
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2018-07-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1