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Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade belongs to a tradition of hyperrealistic, unglamorous, uncomfortable, female-focused coming-of-age movies. Think Todd Solondz’s 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse, Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 Ghost World, and Kelly Fremon Craig’s 2016 The Edge of Seventeen.
The difference here? It’s even more uncomfortable than most, and it’s written and directed by a dude who’s 27 years old, has never directed a film before, and is better known for his work as a YouTuber, comedian, and singer/songwriter.
Burnham may not seem the most likely candidate to direct an acclaimed drama about the struggles of an adolescent girl, yet he has. Between this and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, it’s quite a season for debut films by directors previously more associated with music.
School's (almost) out
Eighth Grade killed at Sundance, played at the Philadelphia Film Society’s Springfest in April, and was bought by quality-savvy distributor A24. The film follows a few days in the life of Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a middle-class girl finishing up the titular grade at a suburban middle school somewhere in America.
Shy, awkward, anxiety-plagued, and friendless, Kayla produces motivational tutorials on YouTube, where she nervously poses as a version of herself who isn’t wracked by self-doubt.
She lives with her single father (Josh Hamilton), a mostly attentive parent who doesn’t appear especially well equipped to handle a teen girl. What became of her mother isn’t mentioned until late in the film, and then only in passing.
The film’s best element is Fisher’s performance. She was 13 at the time and was previously best known for a voice role in the first two Despicable Me movies. She never seems like a 25-year-old playing a teenager, and she nails the character’s vocal cadence. Awkwardness is a difficult emotion to project, but Fisher gets it.
This isn’t She’s All That, where a makeover solves the protagonist’s problems. There’s much reason to doubt Kayla will find her tribe and figure things out, and the film doesn’t make it sound simple or easy.
As for the rest of the cast, mostly unknown, they are also believable and the right age. Emily Robinson, perhaps most recognizable from the amazing Berlin flashbacks in Transparent’s second season, has a couple of good scenes as Olivia, a high-school girl who mentors Kayla.
Eighth Grade is uncomfortable to watch, but that’s a sign it’s getting things right. Even through all the cringe-inducing debacles we see Kayla confront, the film is very funny.
Possibly my favorite recurring gag is the way Kayla views her classmate and crush, Aiden (Luke Prael). She sees him as a dreamboat, and the camera focuses on him with the sort of gaze normally reserved for sexy women running in slow motion. It’s a fantastic subversion, made even more hilarious by Aiden’s appearance as a skinny, aloof, uncharismatic dork.
The film is savvy about teens' use of social media without ever getting preachy or sanctimonious about it, which is welcome. I kept fearing we’d get a catfishing or cyberbullying subplot that would quickly turn the film into an after-school special, but that doesn’t happen.
In this genre, I consider Edge of Seventeen just a tick better; it built out its world further, had a more compelling story arc, and moved more briskly. But anyone who spent their middle-school years shy and uncomfortable in their skin — probably most people — will find plenty of familiarity in and admiration for Eighth Grade.
What, When, Where
Eighth Grade. Written and directed by Bo Burnham. Opens July 27, 2018. Philadelphia area showtimes.
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