Bo Burnham's coming-of-age comedy is a dazzling display of earnest filmmaking.
The darling of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade lives up to the hype as a legit coming-of-age saga of self-worth, self-importance, and self-realization. The key to the magic is the film's star, Elsie Fisher, who exudes every inch of teenage awkwardness that will speak to your past and paint a way for your future as you remember the hurdles you've already surpassed in your journey to adulthood.
Fisher plays Kayla, a precocious thirteen-year old who wants to climb in a cave and hide while also be accepted by her peers as a 'cool kid.' Set in a current suburban landscape, Kayla fits into the bubble of modern social anxieties, mostly shaped by the most recent social media platforms and societal norms. Stuck in the last week of her eighth grad e year, Kayla must master attending a classmate's pool party (swimsuit and all), talking to the boy on whom she has a crush, and learning to deal with a dad who is out of touch.
Middle school was disastrous for all of us, so it's easy to commiserate with Kayla and her day-to-day struggles. Director Burnham, a comedian venturing into film directing for the first time, masterfully shapes the defeat of the middle school years with aplomb. He's written a script that is so close to reality it can sometimes feel almost too real, which is a blessing and a curse. As Kayla, Fisher perfectly balances the charisma of a starring character, commanding the screen each and every moment, but folds into the perfect embodiment of 'awkward teenager' with acne and shyness to boot. She's a bonafide talent, for sure, but hopefully her near perfect performances doesn't typecast her or allow the audience to overshadow her own talents by the mere notion that she is Kayla, instead of an actress playing a character.
The entire film rests on Fisher's shoulders, but her supporting players give key moments of fresh air and material with which she can continue to to chew. As her dad, Josh Hamilton plays the typical 'go-with-the-flow' father figure that is usually reserved for sitcoms, but works perfectly here. Like other recent coming-of-age tales Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon, a third act monologue by Hamilton's father figure ties up the film's endearing message of acceptance and vulnerability. The rest of the cast is made of other newcomers, like Fisher, which is a smart move on Burnham's part. We get frequent teen angst and adolescence thrown at us by way of throwaway one-liners, silly cameos (the eyelid boy definitely sticks out as a stereotypical character we all know from childhood) and the excitement of a high schooler giving a middle schooler attention.
Burnham is careful to never feel patronizing in his approach, which works wonders. Whether you're male or female, there's something about Kayla's search for identity that resonates. We've all been there, whether we were the cool kid or not. The story goes a little longer than it should, but even the extra material works to its advantage. It'd be great to see a sequel in a few years, to see where Kayla has gone throughout her transformation through puberty.
Eighth Grade is a nice surprise in the films of 2018. It's refreshingly smart and candidly funny. It never crosses the line into American Pie territory, staying very close to reality and nothing more. Hopefully, it will stick around throughout awards season, if not for its meandering and stunning screenplay, then for Fisher's delectable performance.