Current Issue #488

Film Review:
Eighth Grade

Although distinctly American, writer/director Bo Burnham’s subtly melancholy teen drama tells a universal story, and star Elsie Fisher perfectly captures the agony of being young because, well, she was.

Burnham (a filmmaker, actor, muso, comedian and poet) based elements of his feature début on his own troubled youth, and it’s intriguing that, unlike recent teen-type tales (Middle School: The Worst Years Of My Life, The Edge Of Seventeen, even Love, Simon), this depicts the whole ghastly school experience as something less than chummy, comedic or awkwardly sexual, and more as an ordeal.

Kayla Day (Fisher) is in her final week at Miles Grove Middle School, somewhere in New York, and she’s introduced making upbeat YouTube videos about confidence and positive self-image that almost no one watches. However, in actuality she’s the opposite of how she wants to be seen, given to bouts of anxiety, voted ‘Most Quiet’ by her classmates, barely acknowledged by the ‘mean girls’ as they endlessly fiddle with their phones, mortified by the presence of her struggling Dad Mark (Josh Hamilton), and addicted to social media (but not Facebook because Elsie herself warned Burnham that it was lame).

An episodic narrative eventually finds Kayla being painfully obligated to attend a pool party at the fancy home of snooty Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), and when she suffers a panic attack in the bathroom and then must endure a ‘walk of shame’ to the safety of the water, we really feel for her. Here she meets the proudly nerdy Gabe (Jake Ryan), Kennedy’s cousin, and she likes him a lot, even though she still pines for crush Aiden (Luke Prael), to whom she lies about nude selfies and sex acts about which she knows little.

When Kayla gets oriented at high school, she befriends the slightly older Olivia (Emily Robinson), who invites her to hang out with her pals at the mall, and there’s another key moment here where she humiliatingly runs into her Dad and pretty much chases him away. Because what does he possibly know about being a teenager?

Olivia has a dodgy friend named Riley who has absolutely no idea about consent, and a tense encounter leads to an impressively-played fireside sequence with Mark and a few revelations we could have easily guessed. And yet, even so, these scenes resonate because it’s such a relief to see Kayla trying to properly communicate with her father who, unlike the two-dimensional comedic or horrific figures we’re used in this sort of thing, is obviously trying hard to understand his daughter and help reassure her that it’ll be okay.

After all, Kayla will go on to high school and everything will work out for the best. Just like it always did back when you were a teenager. Remember?

Reviewer Rating

Eighth Grade (M) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

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