There have been a myriad of coming of age dramas that plumb the awkwardness and awfulness of adolescence, but few have done so with the grace, humour and sheer delight of Bo Burnham’s instant classic of the genre, Eight Grade.
Kayla (a sublime performance by Elsie Fisher) makes videos for the world providing a bit of unsolicited advice, words that seem unable to buttress her own confidence among her peers. At school she’s voted “most quiet”, and at the dinner table she’s glued to her (cracked) iPhone ignoring the protestations of her well-meaning father (Josh Hamilton).
Kayla covets the attention of the dreamy Aiden while lacking the confidence to do anything about it. When invited to a pool party at popular kid Kennedy’s house, she finds herself even more alienated. It’s only when visiting high school as a shadowing experience that she meets an older girl that immediately embraces her character as is, only to find that certain moments of a more adult life can be even harsher and difficult to navigate.
Burnham’s film is electrified through the precision with which this middle school experience is articulated, from the defeated-looking teacher who simply snaps his fingers to quiet rather than stand from his seating position on the stairs, to the creaky band performance that makes musical mockery of the anthem. This is comedy of discomfort, and in order to make that work we really have to connect with the central character. It’s here that Fisher’s take is all the more remarkable, as she’s both inviting and distancing at once, drawing into her turmoil (social, hormonal, etc.) with a sophistication that belies her age.
This is a pimples-and-all look at a time that frankly is forgotten about after the awful of the high school years, a middle period that at the time felt life-and-death yet would soon be overcome by the onslaught of what was to come. In so many ways this is a period of transition, and Burnam’s work beautifully illustrates the myriad elements at play here. Add in modern contrivances like snapchat and the travails of this period of life are somehow escalated even more, making this a truly modern look at the experiences of those in this age group while speaking highly nostalgically to those that may well have blacked out many of these moments from the past.
This is a film that deftly shifts between tear-inducing laughter to downright tragic moments, only to have it all somehow feel all of one piece. It’s this shifts that are handles so effectively that elevates the work, particularly when attached to the specificity with which the vision is articulated.
Eighth Grade will leave you startled with recognition; finding moments that connect that you may well have subsumed yourself back into the darkest realms of your psyche. Equally, it’s a film that speaks to the highly universal experience of feeling out of touch with one’s self, struggling for identity as the transition takes full hold from childhood to adolescence and beyond.
Caustic, hilarious, and wonderfully effective, Burnham’s Eighth Grade may drum up anxious feelings long buried, but it does so with a wit and intelligence that’s unbeatable. A wonderful and warm film that already feels near definitive, it’s an indie flick deserving of as wide a release as possible to what will no doubt be legions of fans of this terrific movie.