By Chris Campo
Everyone remembers eighth grade. Or at least the time you were around the age of the characters in the film Eighth Grade are. For me, that age meant goofing off in school, begging my mom to take me to the newest R-rated film, playing Call of Duty until the moon no longer existed and, ironically, watching Bo Burnham. His music videos, stand up specials, you name it. Bo Burnham, the writer/director of Eighth Grade, was my first celebrity obsession. In fact, one time (around the time I would have been in eighth grade) I sent Bo a DM on Instagram, in which I spilled my heart out about how much I loved him. I since regrettably deleted the DM out of embarrassment. Bo never opened it, however, he did just recently like my tweet in which I gushed about this film. Full circle, bitches!
Eighth Grade follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a shy girl who strives to be confident, but reality makes it hard for her to fit in. She spends a great deal of her time on YouTube uploading vlogs with advice and tips for other people to be confident, or to fit in, or to be themselves. Yet Kayla can't seem to take her own advice, so many of her days include keeping to herself during school, awkward dinners with her father (Josh Hamilton) and late nights on Instagram, Snapchat or YouTube. After a pool party, and a few run-ins with the cutest boy in junior high, Kayla decides to get out there more and, before she graduates into high school, become the girl she says she is online.
Who knew typical eighth grader stuff was so damn entertaining? Okay, maybe typically it is not, but Bo Burnham takes such a real approach to this young girl's life. It doesn't feel like we are watching a movie, it just feels like a camera following a young girl around for a very important part of her life. At times the film feels like it’s not really about anything, but that’s the point. There's no grand plot, it's really just how this section of Kayla's life affects her. It's like Lady Bird meets Call me By Your Name just set in eighth grade and without sexual acts being performed on a peach (bananas, however). Moments towards the end can feel predictable or cliché, but rarely does that hurt the film. It often helps it feel real. Life is cliché.
This isn’t a typical comedy, but given that the man behind the camera is a comedian, you can expect a lot of laughs here. They aren't the usual gags in most studio comedies; they are timely, well thought out observations that make the film feel as if Burnham wrote it yesterday. The jokes and references to pop culture and social media trends are so current and authentic. For example, the principal of the school tries relating to the kids by ending his speech with a dab, or the sexual education teacher informs the kids that puberty is "Lit". It's cringe-worthy, but it's cringe-worthy in real life. It just works here. Never before has a film felt so authentic regarding kids and the digital era they are growing up in.
The film's greatest strength is in its performances. The intimate, authentic approach just would not work if that weren’t the case. All the young kids are great at acting like young kids. None of them overdo it. My favorite of the bunch is young Jake Ryan, who plays the only person of Kayla's age that is actually nice to her. This kid had me laughing non-stop in an unbearably adorable scene towards the end.
Josh Hamilton, Kayla's father starts out one note, it's not a bad note, he is great in the whole film, but he hits you in the gut with an emotional monologue towards the end that will be hard to get through with dry eyes. However, the real star is Elsie Fisher, as young Kayla. She just feels so real. She's awkward but it's never goofy or unbelievable. The way she trips over her words and flubs when she tries to be confident or her fast, nervous talking is just so damn perfect. If she doesn't get awards love this year it will be a damn tragedy.
Eighth Grade is not necessarily the film I imagined when I heard Bo Burnham would be writing/directing his first feature, but I am sure glad it turned out this way. Seeing a character learn and grow right before your eyes is always a rewarding experience, and it's done so expertly in Eighth Grade. This is one of the best coming of age films of the year. It's one of the best movies of the year. It's a sweet and at times relaxing film that will be a mainstay in the hearts of any young person that sees the film, or anyone with a child, or anyone who has had similar experiences to those in the films. It is a film for everyone and one that I highly recommend checking out.
4 1/2 Stars
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