Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Movie Review: Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Bo Burnham.
Written by: Bo Burnham.
Starring: Elsie Fisher (Kayla), Josh Hamilton (Mark Day), Emily Robinson (Olivia), Jake Ryan (Gabe), Daniel Zolghadri (Riley), Fred Hechinger (Trevor), Imani Lewis (Aniyah), Luke Prael (Aiden), Catherine Oliviere (Kennedy), Nora Mullins (Steph), Gerald W. Jones (Tyler), Missy Yager (Mrs. Graves), Shacha Tenirov (Mason), Greg Crowe (Mr. McDaniel).
Bo Burnham’s remarkable debut film Eighth Grade pulls off a nearly impossible trick in that he has made a film that is very much about teenagers who live in the here and now, and yet what he documents will be relatable to everyone who ever suffered through Eighth Grade. The soul of narrative is specificity, and Burnham has that nailed, as his characters and their problems are intrinsically linked to social media, and the need to perform their day-to-day lives out in public view. But the insecurities the main character has is something that many people, of different ages, can relate to – especially for those of us who are painfully shy.
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is just about to graduate from middle school – she’s got one week left before she is out of Eighty Grade, and into high school. She is being raised by her single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton) – who is a nice guy, really trying his best. Kayla is painfully shy – she wins the “Most Quiet” “award” as voted on by her classmates. We see her life in private – when she isn’t so quiet and so shy. She is trying to do what she is “supposed” to do – she has a vlog full of tips to other teenagers, she takes selfies for Instagram, she works hard on her makeup to hide her acme. But the poor kid just cannot seem to make friends – her vlog entries go off into the void of the internet with no one watching (hey, that’s like this blog!). The other kids aren’t outwardly mean to her – they would have to notice her for that, and none of them really seem to.
Eighth Grade is the type of movie that many people will inevitably complain that “nothing happens” in it. To a certain extent, that is true. This is a fairly normal week in Kayla’s life – and the life of any Eighth Grader. That makes it all the more painful to sit through. We see Kayla as she awkwardly tries to flirt with the boy she likes – he’s an asshole, but like many 13-year-old girls, she doesn’t see that right away. She is roped into go to swim birthday party for one of the popular girls – she didn’t want to invite Kayla, Kayla didn’t want to go, but parents can be insistent. Even when she has a good day – shadowing high school student Olivia, for a day, who is very nice to her, the day still ends horribly, with a scary encounter with one of Olivia’s guy friends, Riley.
The film really is an intimate masterwork by Burnham – who doesn’t try to goose the film with phony dramatics. As a writer, he fills the film with tiny details – the awkward conversations teenagers have for example, including Kayla’s “big” moment near the end when she finally stands up for herself, and its both a triumph and incredibly awkward. She also nails the well-meaning but clueless parent in Mark’s character – he really would do anything for his daughter, really wants the best for her – but there is only so much he can do for her. He spends most of the film confused on what to do – nowhere more memorably than when he has a banana thrown at him. As a director, Burnham mostly stays invisible, but shows himself a few times – most notably (and brilliantly) at the pool party scene, which he shoots almost like a horror film, even though it’s just a bunch of kids playing in a pool.
Burnham’s biggest accomplishment though is the performance he gets from Fisher – who is instantly the most relatable and realistic portrayal of a teenager I can recall in a film. Fisher is talented at showing us the polished face Kayla is trying to show to the world – and the cracks that exist even in that façade. She is heartbreakingly real in the other scenes when she is around other people as well – especially in the car ride from hell with Riley, in particularly when the worst of it is over, and she somehow ends up apologizing to him. Hamilton is just as good as her dad – who may not know the right thing to say all the time, but does nail it in the end.
Burnham has been a talented stand-up comedian up until now – becoming a Youtube celebrity as a teenager, and then suffering from panic attacks and stage fright, which made him decide to take his career in another direction. As much as I like his stand-up – and hope he does it again – this is where he belongs. This is one of the best debut films in a long time – and one the best films of the year so far.

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