A24 // Directed by Bo Burnham // Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Fred Hechinger
You should watch EIGHTH GRADE (2018)
While the world is still waiting on Bo Burnham to direct another narrative film, his notary went up a few notches during the pandemic with his Netflix special Inside. It is highly likely that you, dear reader, have seen this special, and perhaps even listened to the soundtrack a few dozen times on whatever music service you utilize. You may even call yourself a Bo Burnham fan. If so, it is highly recommended that you watch the only narrative film he has written and directed so far: Eighth Grade.
The film is a coming-of-age story centered around Elsie Fisher’s character Kayla, as she works her way through the last weeks of Eighth Grade. She has a YouTube channel where she offers advice on life, and she is just trying to make it through middle school. Josh Hamilton plays her father, who is not only trying to support her independence but also to be there for her. Kayla is an introvert who desperately wants to be an extrovert. There are tons of awkward and uncomfortable moments that a viewer her age may find too relatable.
Fisher gives an outstanding performance in the lead role. Fans of Despicable Me may recognize Fisher’s voice, as she plays Agnes in the first two. As Kayla, Fisher can embody all the discomfort associated with middle school: the longing to be accepted; the embarrassment of everything; the desire to be independent of one’s parents; and the desperate need for the love of those same parents. A great example of this occurs early on in the film - after winning the Most Quiet Award, she attempts to congratulate two other students by barely squeaking “good job.” She is clearly not proud of her award, and yet can’t help but continue to be awkward and shy. The internal struggle Fisher displays is vital to understanding the character.
Burnham has so much style in his presentation. The introduction of Aiden, played by Luke Prael, perfectly demonstrates his style. The teacher says Aiden’s name, and Burnham cuts to a close-up of his eyes. All of this is from Kayla’s mind, as the music kicks into overdrive and he walks in slow motion. The music is cut off by Kayla’s meekly stated “good job” as she tries to connect with her crush. Music is used in interesting ways throughout the film, as Kayla uses her headphones to drown out the world. Burnham’s comedic sensibilities shine throughout the film, but there is a scene with a banana that demonstrates his mastery of visual jokes. For a debut feature, Burnham’s voice is clear - and choosing to tell a coming-of-age story from a girl’s perspective demonstrates his confidence.
Eighth Grade has received tons of critical praise since it debuted. I was fortunate enough to see this at SXSW, with Burnham and Fisher doing a Q&A. The film clicked with me so much that as soon as it got a theatrical release, I took my wife and daughter to see it. This is one of those films that you may connect with too much, and have secondhand embarrassment or anxiety. For a film that is quite funny, it also features one of the tensest sequences a parent could endure.
- Jon Berk, 13th March 2023