Middle school. We’ve all been there. The hormones. The acne. The panicked anxiety. Many of us consider the time frame to be among the most difficult in our lives, since this stage usually packs the worst of puberty’s growing pains as we to transition to adulthood for the first time. Bo Burnham’s directing debut is dedicated to this point in development, and though it’s not entirely original, it’s one of the best movies of the year. Eighth Grade is the latest entry in a recent wave of films dedicated to exploring the female experience in realistic fashion, and you won’t want to miss it.
A24, the rising distributor responsible for assembling some of the greatest films of recent years, seems to be making a yearly tradition out of delivering coming-of-age dramas that astound reviewers worldwide. In 2016 it was Moonlight, the masterpiece that narrowly won Best Picture and is praised as among the best of the decade. Last year it was Lady Bird, the critical darling that was showered with acclaim during its rollout, and scored five Oscar nominations. A24 keeps the ball rolling in 2018 with Eighth Grade, and the future looks bright for this little film as well.
In cinema, the coming-of-age subgenre is a fertile, yet well-trodden landscape. Portraits of the adolescent experience and turning points in social development are universally relatable, and offer rich character examinations from which we can project ourselves. The category typically ranges in quality from the brilliant real-time experiment Boyhood from 2014 to the sort of content that frequents the Disney Channel. The downside is that the best of these films generally focus on male characters, and tend to relegate the girls to the cheerleaders the boys pine after.
From that perspective, the genre offers plenty of ground for young women to be explored as layered human beings rather than just exotic beauties or damsels in distress. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird led the charge last year by portraying a fiercely oddball young woman with utterly raw realism. Like Saoirse Ronan, Elsie Fisher is an impeccable bit of casting whose unmasked facial acne is completely real. Unlike the-then 22-year-old Ronan, 15-year-old Fisher is still immersed within the angst the project is based on, and doesn’t need to “act” so much as simply be herself.
Eighth Grade begins by showcasing an example of middle schooler Kayla Day’s charming YouTube series, in which she records monologues with her MacBook webcam about various life advice in front of a cream-colored blanket she has rigged up as a backdrop. As the film progresses, the video diaries are used as an ongoing narrative device in which Kayla reflects on her different experiences over her last week of eighth grade. Fisher appears here thoroughly unfiltered, and her nervous word usage heavily padded by “likes” and “whatevers” is irresistibly endearing.
During her final week of middle school, Kayla’s eighth grade graduation quickly approaches, and she opens up a time capsule she prepared herself for the special day. As the end nears, she begins taking stock of her accomplishments, and her lack of a boyfriend or friends in general motivates her to work a little bit harder before things wrap for good. She reluctantly attends a popular girl’s pool party (Catherine Oliviere), she strikes up chatter with her crush (Luke Prael), and she tries to fit in with a local group of high school seniors. Things don’t always go as planned.
The film is written and directed by Bo Burnham, a 27-year-old comedian who got his start in YouTube videos (hence, you can spot a bit of himself in Kayla Day), has performed in stand-up specials on Comedy Central and Netflix, co-created and starred in MTV’s Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous in 2013, and has acted in films such as last year’s The Big Sick and Rough Night. Aside from amatuer videos and stand-up specials, Eighth Grade represents his bona fide directorial debut, and if his future work is anything like Eight Grade, we could have a new talent on our hands.
Burnham’s style as evidenced by Eighth Grade is best described as aggressively intimate: where Greta Gerwig relied on naturalistic restraint in Lady Bird, Burnham affords the viewer no escape from experiencing the full gamut of teen anguish in all of its magnitude. Throughout the film, Burnham employs a droll sense of wit with brutal close-ups that exhibit pre-teen awkwardness in ruthlessly authentic glory. Set during the era of Instagram and Snapchat, the director aptly immerses the viewer into the current generation, resisting any sense of ridicule or exploitation.
Along with passionate direction from Burnham, Eighth Grade also boasts some memorable cinematography from Andrew Wehde. Candid POV shots effectively submerge the viewer to the eighth-grade level, while a potently communicative sequence hearkens back to the scuba scene in The Graduate as a petrified Kayla confronts her social fears by joining the others at a pool party. The visuals are complemented by a hair-raising soundtrack by lauded electronic composer Anna Meredith, and it’s a caustic combination that renders the return to pre-pubescence inescapable.
In fact, the film fleshes out all that is involved with this stage so effectively that it is admittedly rather hard to believe that all these events occur within the span of only roughly a week. And yet, the presentation is so effective and the storytelling is so genuine you’ll be too captivated to care. The casting including a sparkling Jake Ryan as an eccentric little boy and a lovable Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s single dad is perfect, and Bo Burnham’s staggering debut as director is fearless and impressive: Eighth Grade is a glowing addition to the girls-focused coming-of-age movement.