Movie Review: Eighth Grade

By Steven Slater

August 16, 2018

They're too happy to be eighth graders.

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Nail, meet head. Considering the title of this film, it certainly encapsulates that year of life which most of us experienced, and most of us would rather forget. Maybe you were the popular one, or the stable one, the one with strong direction in your life. But most of us were not, and middle school is perhaps the most awkward time in our lives. Some people had become socially adept, dating, acting adult, while some of us were still children at heart, a bit too pure and innocent. Yet somehow we are all expected to mingle in the same space for eight hours a day, five days a week. And God forbid at weekend pool parties.

Eighth Grade is the writing and directorial debut of Bo Burnham, with an incredible performance by Elsie Fisher. It follows Kayla, played by Fisher, during her final week of eighth grade, hovering between middle and high school. I doubt anyone has been able to translate the pure horror of teen anxiety as well as these two through their film and performance. You can feel the audience wincing and physically looking away when Kayla tries interacting with other people. Yet, there is some awful joy, because we can all relate to moments in our lives where it was just as awkward for us. Somehow, we grew up and turned out okay, and luckily this is not a tragedy, so we do see a positive direction in Kayla’s life ahead by the end of the film. Since Burnham is also a comedian, he never lets things get too dark (with one exception in the back seat of a car), and we are able to laugh things off fairly regularly. After all, at that tender age, we had such defined opinions of people, and now we can see how ridiculous the whole thing is. How parents are such a constant source of embarrassment, when all they want is to see us succeed. How high schoolers are the coolest people on earth, even though they barely know any better than we do. How the popular kids and the hot boys and girls are complete gods in our eyes, even though they may be despicable people. And how the mall is the most awesome place to hang out, at least in suburban USA.




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One thing that truly struck deep with this film is also how present it is, as it essentially takes place right now. Although Burnham is in his late twenties, an eternity in the eyes of an eighth grader, he seems to have a perfect knowledge of how social media and smart phones affect every single minute of a typical teenager’s day. It is jaw-droppingly frightening how Kayla’s self image is tied to her digital profile on multiple platforms, but then again it is just an extension of how it has always been with teenagers and young adults growing through puberty. The film’s greatest strength is how real it all feels. From how the life of Kayla is structured, to the dialogue and interactions between characters, everything feels immediate and real, and Fisher’s performance completely sells her character. Even when she is doing something that is Absolutely The Wrong Thing To Do, we understand why she is doing it, hoping the worst of consequences does not come to pass. How any of us escaped this period of our lives unscathed is a minor miracle.

Having seen Welcome to the Dollhouse recently, and now this film, I think I am done with middle school for a very long time (and both films appear to take place in northern New Jersey, so stay away from there!). I know very few people want to relive eighth grade, but this is definitely the movie to do it with.

Slater Grade: A


     


 
 

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