“Eighth Grade” Movie Review

Full disclaimer before starting this review: If awkward moments legitimately stress you out, this movie might literally kill you. If anything, that should be proof enough that the film did its job perfectly for me. This coming-of-age dramedy premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Following a string of screenings at other events such as South By Southwest, the critically acclaimed film received a limited release on July 13th and expanded to more cities and theaters in the following weeks. It has thus far received over $10 million at the worldwide box office as well as some of the best reviews of any film released this year. Written and directed by Bo Burnham, a standup comedian mostly known for quirky YouTube videos, the film was born out of his own anxieties about the Internet and other concerns in the past couple years. He wrote the first draft of Eighth Grade in less than two weeks and was quickly brought to the attention of producer Scott Rudin and distributor A24. According to him, the hardest part was trying to have enough time to work with the child actors- and fighting the R-rating that would ultimately deter their demographic from seeing it in theaters. The 94 minute-long plot follows Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, a shy and awkward young girl struggling to come to terms with growing up. In her last week of eighth grade, she decides to start making a series of self-help YouTube videos that could hopefully boost her confidence. As she gets more wrapped up in various social media shenanigans, she discovers more about herself and the classmates surrounding her, most of whom seem to spend the vast majority of time on their phones. While I was excited to see Eighth Grade because of all of the extremely positive buzz that it’s been getting, I won’t hesitate to admit that I was unsure if I could relate to it. I’m a (somewhat) grown man with virtually no social media account whatsoever. I’ve never been a 14-year-old girl with long blonde hair and a crush on the popular boys in the classroom. I have never really found the desire to vent a lot of my problems into some social media app like Snapchat or Instagram on my phone. And yet, that probably means that Bo Burnham, a 26-year-old man making his directorial debut, is a lot more informed about our current culture than I am. And that should be the highest praise that Eighth Grade can receive because it’s just such a marvelous film to watch. It’s truly a wonder how well Bo Burnham actually “gets” just how awkward and awful it is to be a middle schooler in the modern era. He has no reservations whatsoever about expressing the pains of growing up as a teenage outsider. That undesirable span of time when it feels like you’re stuck between at least two different worlds, one that wants you to leave as soon as possible and the other that doesn’t want you in the first place. I honestly don’t know how Burnham was able to grasp this world and tone so realistically and beautifully. To the best of my knowledge, he never had the experience of being an adolescent girl growing in the post-Millennial era. But again, that’s what makes it so well-done. Elsie Fisher gives a star-making performance as Kayla, and everyone should be paying attention to this. She’s so naturally shy and dorky as Kayla that it almost seems like the part was written for her. Without any makeup hiding her imperfect skin, and with a real-life age that corresponds with her character, she virtually is Kayla Day. Pretty much all of the supporting cast members are made up of unknown actors, all of whom are age-appropriate for the story. But the one person who can match Fisher is Josh Hamilton as her loving if confused single father. While he doesn’t quite understand what all she’s going through, he tries his hardest to be there for her. He delivers an impassioned monologue near the film’s end about how lucky and proud he feels to be her family. In some ways, he seems, a little too good to be true. But there’s no denying that any child would be lucky to have him there to support them. But what’s also extremely impressive about Eighth Grade is how well-constructed it is from a filmmaking perspective. I had been expecting a lot of shaky, handheld camerawork, but cinematographer Andrew Wehde sidesteps this successfully. The camera is almost always steady as it focuses on different characters when needed. The spontaneity of the shot composition unfolds almost in real time for scenes, which makes it seem as awkward as our protagonist. What’s interesting is that when Kayla’s often with her father, it sticks to static wide shots as if to illustrate the distance between the two of them. The editing is handled very well by Jennifer Lilly, who employs enough cuts to maintain continuity. For example, more uncomfortable moments are drawn out while others are more filled. What’s more is that the actors are all using real Snapchat and Instagram accounts made by the director himself, creating realistic lighting effects. And often it’ll use one of Kayla’s videos as a transition tool between scenes. The instrumental score is composed by Anna Meredith, an electronica artist whose debut album released a couple years ago. Her sensibilities are well-met, as the soundtrack replaces ditzy guitar-heavy pieces commonly found in these films with tracks consisting almost entirely of synthesizers. Most of them are made up of only a few chords and create a certain dissonance that fits the uncertainty of the characters. A select few also include electronic drum kits and melodies that strike a surprisingly effective emotional chord with the audience without having to be overly saccharine. There’s also a great use of the song “Orinoco Flow” by Enya in a montage sequence that feels incredibly appropriate for the tone. Overall, this is a great soundtrack worthy of its approach. In all seriousness, I’m quite convinced that this is the masterpiece many critics and viewers are touting it as. There were a couple of elements in the story that just seemed a little too far removed for me to be able to empathize with completely, plus the lack of rewatchability. I definitely see why it’s been getting all of the hype, but something felt missing- I can’t quite put my finger on it. Regardless, Eighth Grade is an immensely relatable piece on the ambivalence of the Internet. I really emphasize enough how shocked I am to see how complete Bo Burnham’s feature debut is. It makes me eager to see what else he has in store for creative output. It also is anchored by perhaps the best female lead performance of the year so far. Elsie Fisher is a star that deserves love and recognition. Be wary of intense awkwardness, though.

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1 thought on ““Eighth Grade” Movie Review

  1. Pingback: Retrospective: The 20 Best Films of 2018 | Geek's Landing

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