(2018—Director: Bo Burnham)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(4 out of 5 stars)
“You can’t be brave without being scared.”
— Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), from her YouTube video “How to Be Confident”
Potential spoilers below
Hey, guys! It’s Renard, back with another review.
“Oh my gosh, look at that fluffy unicorn! He’s so fluffy I’m gonna die!” Thus spoke youngest sister Agnes from the 2010 animated comedy Despicable Me, winning the hearts of viewers across the world. Now, eight years later, Agnes’ voice actress Elsie Fisher gets her first live action star role in Eighth Grade, the writing-directing feature debut of the young yet seasoned entertainer Bo Burnham. Burnham complements his exaggerated yet nevertheless first-hand knowledge of his story’s subject matter with technical crafts that surprise in their modest precision and comedic timing.
One week of eighth grade stands between thirteen-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) and starting her social life afresh in high school. Kayla has long struggled to make friends at school, while the motivational videos she posts on YouTube receive little to no attention. Kayla shares a remote connection with her single father Mark (Josh Hamilton), who proves no match against the bright screen of her phone and social media. Between a pool party hosted by popular yet vapid classmate Kennedy Graves (Catherine Oliviere), trying to catch the eye of her scrawny and steely-eyed crush, Aiden (Luke Prael), and impressing high school senior Olivia (Emily Robinson) during a high school shadow program, Kayla still hopes to make this last week the start of a brighter future.
Audiences will take note at once of Eighth Grade’s forest of mobile screens and many empty “likes”, “totallys”, and other filler words that have become all too common in the up-and-coming social culture. To put a sharp lens on this isolated environment, writer-director Burnham, cinematographer Andrew Wehde, and editor Jennifer Lilly lock onto Kayla and her immediate surroundings. Kayla participates in the attention-seeking, electronic, and social media-centered routine of her peers, clinging to it while also aware that it has yet to benefit her like it seems to have done for everyone else. Ms. Fisher, undeterred by social interaction in real life, commits to the role of Kayla beautifully.
No one likes an awkward moment, and all of the adults featured—save for perhaps Kennedy Graves’ kind mother (Missy Yager)—manage to surpass the teenaged characters in their awkwardness. It would not surprise me if Burnham devoted little to no rehearsal time with the adult actors, to keep them as unpolished as possible and with constant misplaced and embarrassing confidence in the eyes of teenagers. (*pause for lit dabbing attempt*) No adult here is more awkward than Kayla’s single father. Despite having even less of a spine than Ron Livingston’s Drew from Tully, Josh Hamilton’s Mark does his best to relish the pride he has for his daughter, even if she feels that her failings so far in life have outnumbered her successes.
Between Eighth Grade and Lu Over the Wall from a few months ago, 2018 has succeeded like no other year I can remember in offering a candid and sympathetic mirror for those still looking forward to high school and beyond. Eighth Grade in particular returned me to a moment in junior high at Holy Family School in Seattle when, sitting in the back of the class during a lesson, I could see all of my classmates texting each other underneath their desks. (That was the post-Motorola Razr, pre-iPhone era of mobile devices.) Whereas last year’s Lady Bird powered through high school senior year and left viewers at peace by the end, Eighth Grade reminds its audience of a less stable time growing up—a time when what we all needed the most was the reassurance that we were going to be okay. Given the R-rating of writer-director Bo Burnham’s dramedy, it appears that many adults today desire that same reassurance. No film can substitute for a human or divine relationship, but for now, Eighth Grade can and does suffice in helping one look forward to the person they will become.
I can’t wait!
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.