5 out of 5 stars.
“Eighth Grade” is the story of an average girl’s last week of middle school. But there’s nothing average about this film, which is the debut feature from writer/director Bo Burnham. Rather than a quirky and sugar-coated teen comedy, it’s about as honest and unflinching as a portrayal of middle school can get.
Elsie Fisher stars as Kayla Day, a shy girl approaching her last week of the eighth grade. Kayla has a YouTube channel where she posts motivational videos and advice, but she doesn’t practice what she preaches in real life. Kayla doesn’t have any friends or self-confidence, and isn’t very comfortable being herself around her peers. The mere prospect of attending a pool party with a bunch of her more popular classmates sends her into a panic attack.
“Eighth Grade” has some funny moments, but most of its humor is derived from the characters’ awkwardness. Overall, “Eighth Grade” is the heart-wrenching and very real look at teenage life that we don’t often get even in the best-intentioned of movies. Burnham’s script places the viewer firmly in Kayla’s point of view, making the film painfully relatable for those who had similar school experiences to Kayla, while allowing those who have rarely felt that kind of anxiety the opportunity to understand.
Burnham, a comedian whose career took off thanks to his YouTube channel, also uses his film to explore the effects of another factor weighing on teens nowadays: social media. Kayla projects a persona online that doesn’t represent her real life; even the sort of advice she gives is the kind that people tend to spout on social media for likes, but that no one actually takes seriously. In a rather dizzying sequence, we see Kayla scroll through Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook for a seemingly endless amount of time; she seems to spend time in this superficial world to escape her reality. There’s a lot of pressure on young people to post a lot, to get a lot of likes, to be popular, and to always look great, and we get a glimpse of that pressure in Kayla.
“Eighth Grade” is a stunning debut film that really shows Burnham’s unique style. The use of sound in this movie is particularly interesting. The score pounds to an achingly loud crescendo during moments of stress or intense emotion, but when the film brings us out of Kayla’s head and back into reality, the music (and even sound in general) cuts out entirely. Burnham also keeps the camera focused on Kayla in every scene; even among a group of people, she is kept in the center.
This film is also a breakthrough role for Elsie Fisher, whose most notably credits up to now have been voicing Agnes in the first two “Despicable Me” movies. It’s safe to say that Fisher deserves equal credit with Burnham for this film’s success. Her performance is completely captivating and Fisher has her character down like a pro. She slouches when she walks; she often avoids eye contact with others; she modulates her voice according to the situation, whether she’s speaking assuredly for her YouTube channel, or getting annoyed with her extremely patient and supportive father (played by Josh Hamilton), or letting all her words out in an excited rush when she’s attempting to socialize with other people. And then there’s the sadness and anxiety in her voice when she apologizes to others for events that aren’t her fault, but that she believes are her fault and that she is inadequate. We drop in on Kayla at the end of her middle school years not knowing anything about her, but Fisher makes us immediately feel like we do thanks to her performance, which is absolutely one of the best of the year.
“Eighth Grade” isn’t a movie that will make you feel any better about your own middle school years. But it does let you know that if they were good, that’s good, and if they were bad, that’s okay too, and that you made it through them and there’s still so much in life to look forward too.
Runtime: 93 minutes. Rated R.