Comedy Eighth Grade

Review: ‘Eighth Grade’ is an Unfiltered Portrait of Adolescent Life

July 20, 2018Ferdosa Abdi

YouTube star and stand-up comedian Bo Burnham's nuanced directorial debut, Eighth Grade, is a vibrant, raw and honest portrait of a young girl's journey through adolescence in the age of social media, which shines a spotlight on its lead actress, Elsie Fisher.

A much-needed change from the usual Disney Channel talent that populate this genre of storytelling, Fisher stars as Kayla Day, an insecure eighth grader who is about to enter high school. Kayla aspires to be confident and popular and hopes that high school is the fresh start she desperately needs, but being an eighth-grader in 2017, she is inundated with technology and social media, leading her to craft a false online persona of whom she wants to be. Social media exacerbates Kayla's anxieties, but at the same time it also allows her to express herself in ways she is incapable of in real-life.

The movie takes place during the final week of eighth grade. During this week, Burnham faithfully shows us the best and worst aspects of this time that we have all experienced in our lives. His signature awkward comedy — found in all of his work from his YouTube days, his short-lived MTV show, and his stand-up routine — will make you cringe and have you reliving the painful memories of your middle school days. Eighth Grade allows us to look back at our own transitions from childhood to adolescence — a time where more problems related to growing up arise — and reflect upon this embarrassing, awkward and genuinely difficult time. To strike a tonal balance is hard, but Burnham does it perfectly. He does not mock Kayla's insecurities; instead, he respects her state of mind and portrays it with honesty, and we appreciate the humor that naturally comes from it.

Fisher is a genuine star, and there is never a moment that casts doubt on her authenticity. She is Kayla, and Kayla is many of us at the age, and it is refreshing to see a kid be portrayed with acne on her face, chipped nail polish, and wearing practical clothing for a middle schooler. It is so rare to see an average-looking kid portrayed on-screen, and by doing so it feels revolutionary. Fisher gives a very nuanced and heartfelt portrayal of lost kid, and her eyes tell the story of someone looking to belong, and the devastation one goes through on a daily basis when they are unhappy with who they are. Some might remember Fisher from her voice work in the Despicable Me movies, and she has come a long way since then. Yes, Agnes is all grown up!

It is also worth recognizing the contributions of Anna Meredith, whose electronic compositions produces an atmosphere that reflects Kayla's world. As Kayla is a child of the digital age, it is imperative that we fully experience what that means, and Meredith's electronic melodies seamlessly adapt to various situations Kayla finds herself in. Also worth mentioning is John Hamilton, who plays Kayla's well-intentioned father. He provides a speech at the end of the film that lacks refinement — and isn't as eloquent as the fatherly speech heard at the end of something like Call Me By Your Name — but it is effective and will make your heart cry. Suffice to say, the result is made exponentially better by both their contributions.

Ultimately, Eighth Grade is nothing without a relatable character and star. It is nothing without an authentic approach depicting what it is like to be a tween during the digital age, to live with social anxiety while still figuring out who one is. Both Burnham and Fisher should be enormously proud of crafting a story that is an honest portrayal of this universal struggle. Eighth Grade is a must-see film for all ages, but especially to middle schoolers who need to see themselves honestly reflected on screen.

Eighth Grade releases July 20th, 2018 from Elevation Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for language and some sexual material. Its runtime is 1 hr. 34 min.

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