Written by: Kimberly Pierce, CC2K Associate Editor
Middle School can only be described as a vicious social experiment. Puberty, angst and hormones combine together to turn the most innocent teenager intolerable, and to make matters worse, they’re all locked in a building together. Sounds like a great subject for comedy, right? Well, director Bo Burnham takes on the subject with his latest film, Eighth Grade which found itself as one of the darlings of Sundance. What do you need to know before checking it out?
Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day’s (Elsie Fisher) final week of middle school. Kayla is like most of us in the decidedly torturous period separating the simplicity of elementary school from the drama of high school. She’s awkward, going through puberty, and nothing quite seems to fit. Kayla lives with her utterly adorable single father Mark (Josh Hamilton). However, he can only watch his daughter grow-up and cope with the social struggles which those of us who graduated before the onset of social media hardly comprehend.
Elsie Fisher deserves significant praise for her take on Kayla. The young actress puts forward an incredibly layered and realistic performance in a challenging role. Eighth Grade is crafted as an incredibly internal narrative, placing the viewer squarely in Kayla’s shoes. Fisher perfectly embodies the nervousness, the uncertainty and the general uneasiness of being a pre-teen in this day and age.
Fisher’s spot-on work contributes greatly to Eighth Grade‘s unflinchingly raw nature that’s most evident when Kayla is invited to popular girl, Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) pool party. Burnham’s camera remains tight on Kayla, forcing us to watch every moment of her agony. Viewers see the hurt when the popular girl doesn’t appreciate Kayla’s birthday gift; we see Kayla’s discomfort in a one-piece swimsuit when she finds herself surrounded by dozens of more confident girls wearing bikinis. Burnham’s (and cinematographer Andrew Wehde) reliance on close-ups to explore Kayla’s interiority puts a challenge on the young actress; however, Fisher faces it easily with a strong, relatable, and above all, realistic performance. She easily carries the movie on her young shoulders.
Actor Josh Hamilton also puts forward a portrayal which is in definite need of recognition. Hamilton has been working steadily in the industry for a number of years; however, his take on Kayla’s lovable and well-meaning father Mark makes me wonder how I’ve missed his work for so long. Mark is an awkward, but ultimately caring dad. We see him struggle a bit with the challenge of raising an independent young woman, but Mark truly loves her. The scene between Kayla and Mark at the end of the narrative is poignant and emotional, and there isn’t a dry eye in the house as it comes to a close.
Stylistically, Eighth Grade is a challenge. As mentioned before, the film makes a constant use of close-ups throughout the story. While Burnham appears to be using the tight shots to aid in the exploration of Kayla as a character, previous works like Mother! have shown that while this works, it is visually uncomfortable. This is particularly true in Eighth Grade largely because the script is so unnerving and raw. As a result, viewers have no choice but to stew in the awkwardness so many felt in middle school. While this is easily believable as a stylistic choice, it affects the comedic nature of the movie, making it much more of a difficult viewing.
The construction of Burnham’s script leads to what can only be described as a complicated tone. Burnham initially made his way in the industry as a stand-up comedian. As such, the script finds itself caught between wanting to be a comedy and a much heavier drama. This is particularly pronounced when viewing Fisher’s performance. Her take on Kayla is so raw and real that it feels wrong to laugh at the painful moments so many of us remember. Furthermore, Bunham crafts an intelligent critique on the effects of social media on the younger generation. When you add this together with the still (relatively) new threat of school shootings, it’s easier to feel sorry for what we’ve done to the younger generation than laugh at them. Eighth Grade walks a dark (and tricky) line, which ultimately affects the presentation of the humor on-screen. While the movie wants to be a laugh-out-loud comedy, it is decidedly more complicated then that.
Eighth Grade is a movie which is attempting to do quite a lot and largely succeeds. The film sees its biggest struggles in the juggling between comedy and the raw emotionality of the narrative. Depending on your own middle school experience, this has the potential to be a very uncomfortable sit. This could very well be what Burnham intended. While Eighth Grade has its fair share of struggles, this is a solid early effort from a talented, young team. Here’s hoping we see more from this cast and crew in the future.
A film historian for as long as I can remember, I juggle my passion for classic Hollywood with a hobby of reviewing contemporary movies. 1/4 of Citizen Dame (on your favourite podcasting site). When I’m straying out of the classic realm, I’m a sucker for geek/nerd culture. My tastes are wide ranging from Firefly to Doctor Who and even Marvel.