Comedian Bo Burnham’s feature film debut Eighth Grade, a new movie about a young girl going through the last week of eighth grade, will probably make most people’s skin crawl, due to how it manages to hit so close to home depending on one’s personal childhood experiences. But it made this reviewer feel very engaged and invested for just that reason due in part to Burnham’s skills behind the camera. He makes a rather simple slice of life story as convincing enough for someone like its introverted and social media obsessed main character Kayla, played by actress Elsie Fisher. Fisher proves to have a future in movies as her role fits her like a glove. She doesn’t so much announce herself as a star in the making, so much as she quietly nudges to the person next to her and writes it in a note to pass it down the theater aisle. She finds a way to make this character both sympathetic and off-putting, sometimes in the same scene. She makes the moments of her character’s anxiety feel too real and gives a lot of unexpected tension to the proceedings. She also successfully manages to embody the feeling of alienation that one gets from that awkward time in one’s life while struggling to make a connection through social media. This is one of the ways the movie manages to subvert expectations while being more thoughtful and emotionally in-depth than most other coming of age movies.
The movie mostly concerns how Kayla tries to make new friends while she makes inspirational YouTube videos that no one watches. Everyone, including Kayla, are glued to their phones so much that it feels like the main antagonist of the movie are the phones and the computers that everyone is glued to as it constantly feels like an obstacle that Kayla has to overcome. A lot of times where Kayla wants to get to know someone, it’s like almost no one is willing to reciprocate the effort that she put in forming new relationships as they’re so consumed by looking at a screen. The movie’s point of being obsessed with modern technology and the inability to connect with others really adds to the intensity and the anxiety of the movie. These are ideas that we’ve been told time and time again, but it’s more about these ideas than what it’s about, which makes the movie compelling to watch. As a result, some of the experiences Kayla has in the movie make for some of the scariest moments in a non-horror movie I’ve seen in some time due to how dark it gets, especially during an ominous car ride home later in the movie. I was open to what the movie would do to me but I never really thought it would bring back the memories that I never thought to look back at. As someone who had a lot of anxiety around this time, especially around this time in any person’s life because kids can be terrible, this movie really hit home more than I thought it would. It really nailed that feeling and the emotions I remember having in middle school courtesy of Andrew Wehde’s dynamic cinematography, and Anna Meredith’s appropriately frantic score. That feeling like you’re never going to belong or that feeling that no matter how hard you try to get out of your shell, something’s going to come your way to make you go back in your shell feels all too real. But the movie has enough moments for Kayla to open up and get out of her comfort zone where we can see that she’s capable of showing who she really is and able to find people who accept her because of that. I appreciated some of these moments because it allows time for Kayla and the audience watching this to breathe and relax. It also shows how there’s hope for Kayla to meet decent people out there because she’s actually a cool person when she’s willing to present her real personality, but it’s eighth grade so naturally these kids are going to be terrible at this age. When those more cathartic moments happen, you want to cheer her on and hope that it works out for her. But there are other moments where she’s less sympathetic, as seen in the most of the scenes with her dad Mark, played by Josh Hamilton, who might be one of cinema’s greatest fathers due to his undying patience and love for his daughter. A lot of moments where he’s attempting to connect with her has some more unexpected tension as it looks as if their conversations will make a turn for the worse due to Kayla’s treatment towards him, but I appreciated how the movie subverted expectations by not going in that direction. Hamilton does get some moments to shine not only as an actor, but as a character where we see there are more layers to his relationship with Kayla. Since he’s a father and he’s aware, he has to be the mature one of the two as he’s the adult. But Hamilton does bring out those dorky dad qualities with some of his jokes and his over-protectiveness goes too far. But the good thing is that he’s still allowed to be his own person. It was just nice to have someone like him not only be the voice of reason, but also bring some levity to the movie.
Every year, the movie that happens to be my absolute favorite of the year is always the one that touches me on a very personal and emotional level. Eighth Grade will most likely be that movie. While it can be occasionally cringe inducing and uncomfortable due to its authenticity, it’s also what made it so fascinating to watch. Fortunately, it has enough levity to make it more pleasant to sit through. It feels too real at times but it has enough energy to make it a worthy big screen experience. It’s very colorful and playful with its aesthetics that adds a sense of excitement and liveliness to the otherwise casual tone of the movie. In addition to Fisher, a lot of the other young actors are really great in this movie and add a lot to the movie. It also helps that they actually look like and are probably the age that they’re supposed to be. It adds to the authenticity of the rest of the movie and I appreciate that they made the effort to make this movie feel as relatable and believable as possible. This isn’t your typical high school movie but that’s what makes it so special. What sets the movie apart from others is how it makes a great case for how technology can not only be beneficial, but detrimental when someone makes an attempt to express themselves, and connect with someone. Yet, it never feels on the nose or heavy-handed when it comes to its comments on how its teenage characters use social media. Like the rest of the movie, it feels like it’s coming from a real place. It doesn’t so much criticize as much it wants us to observe, but understand what’s going on so that we can see what’s going on in these kids’ lives and be more understanding towards what they go through. Burnham really brings a lot of style and color to the film while crafting a story about a very complex character in Kayla. With the combination of Fisher’s fantastic acting and Burnham’s sincere take on his subject matter, the movie offers a sympathetic and relatable look at the middle school experience.
I am giving Eighth Grade a 5 out of 5 Hairpieces!