EIGHTH GRADE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Bo Burnham

Stars: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Catherine Oliviere, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri.

Emily Robinson and Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade (2018)This rich, naturalistic and authentic look at the anxieties faced by today’s teenagers in a modern world obsessed with social media and status is an insightful coming of age tale that is refreshingly free of the usual tropes of the subgenre.

Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day (played by Elsie Fisher, who voiced the character of Agnes in the first two Despicable Me movies) as she makes that awkward transition from middle school to high school. Kayla is your typical thirteen-year old girl, obsessed with body image, status, friends and social media. Daily she hosts a motivation video blog in which she offers advice on how to get on in life, covering topics like bullying, self-image, sexuality, etc. But her on line confidence belies her own insecurities and lack of real experience. In reality she is self-conscious about her body, shy, full of doubts, she doesn’t have a boyfriend and is still a virgin. And she is not part of the cool “in crowd” at school. That begins to change after she is invited to a pool party by Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), the popular girl at school and queen of the mean girls.

The film follows Kayla’s embarrassing encounters, her first fumbling attempts at sex, and awkward social encounters. Her single father Mark (Josh Hamilton, from Frances Ha, etc) is loving and well-meaning, but he is struggling to cope and understand the changes Kayla is facing, which leads to some awkward moments. Mark fails to realise that his little girl has grown up. But when Kayla meets and befriends high school student Olivia (Emily Robinson) she begins to get some valuable insights into this world which helps to ground her

This charming, funny and affectionate film captures what it is like to be a teenage girl and will resonate with audiences of a similar age who are familiar with Instagram, selfies, and technology. Even more surprising is that this is the debut feature film for writer/director Bo Burnham, a sometimes actor and controversial stand-up comedian best known for playing Zach Stone in the 2013 tv series Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous. He actually began his career as a teenager creating a series of You Tube videos, much like his main character Kayla, so there seems to be a personal connection with his main character.

Burnham’s script is empathetic and grounded in an authenticity that is rare as he captures the pain, awkwardness and every moment of hurt with more realism than John Hughes, that former master of teen angst ever managed. Even the dialogue is liberally punctuated with “ums”, “like”, “whatever”, and awkward pauses that sound natural. In many scenes the teens are staring fixedly at their mobile phones rather than engaging in a meaningful connection in social situations.

Burnham draws naturalistic unhurried performances from his largely unknown cast. Especially good is Fisher, who inhabits the character of Kayla with a layered performance that is mature beyond her years, and makes her a real, three-dimensional character. Hamilton does a superb job as her father who is a bit of a well-meaning dork, but tries hard to do his best. Many adults in the audience will empathise with his sense of helplessness.

With a running time of 94 minutes, the film doesn’t outstay its welcome. Despite the strong streak of humour running throughout the material, some moments here are cringe worthy and raw and dark. However, Eighth Grade will long be remembered as one of the more richly insightful and authentic teen movies.

★★★☆

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