DIR/WRI: Bo Burnham • DOP: Andrew Wehde • ED: Jennifer Lilly • PRO: Eli Bush, Tom Ishizuka, Scott Rudin, Christopher Storer, Lila Yacoub • DES: Sam Lisenco • MUS: Anna Meredith • CAST: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson
Eighth Grade broke my heart and mended it again and I’m not ashamed to admit that. It is a bold, beautiful, brave film that signals bright, long lasting careers for writer and director Bo Burnham and lead actress Elsie Fisher. Eighth Grade is an awkward coming-of-age comedy, a cringing, squirming drama and, ultimately, a balm for social media wracked souls.
Kayla Day (Fisher) is in her last week of eighth grade in middle school. Her life is dominated by Snapchat, Instagram and social anxiety. Despite her dad Mark’s (Josh Hamilton) best efforts at convincing her otherwise, Kayla feels a desperate need to fit in with the ‘cool’ kids. As Kayla makes YouTube life-advice videos, goes to parties and makes friends she gradually realises that fitting in may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Kayla’s YouTube videos are a stroke of genius. Filmed on her iMac’s poor quality webcam and punctuated by unscripted slip-ups and stuttering, they make for novel act breaks in the film. They often contradict each other as Kayla’s first video is about how “It’s like totally OK to just like, um, be yourself” whereas one in the middle focuses on faking it til you make it. Kayla’s sign-off of “Gucci!” is just the icing on the cake. Writer/director Burnham’s early career as a YouTube comedian and Vine star factors in here but it’s his empathy that’s the greatest surprise.
Much like the Netflix smash Big Mouth Burnham softens the edge of potentially cruel comedy with a heavy dose of empathy. Kayla’s arrival at a summer pool party is preceded by a claustrophobic anxiety attack in a locked bathroom. Kayla emerges in an unflattering swimsuit and observes her classmates dancing, splashing and texting in a montage set to booming electro-pop. Lesser films would faceplant in moments like these but Burnham directs with such a sure hand that all we can do is feel for Kayla and laugh at her awkward interaction with Gabe (Jake Ryan).
All of the performances in Eighth Grade orbit around Fisher. Kayla is the selfless centre of the film. Her endearing nature is only superseded by her awkwardness especially in scenes where she interacts with anyone older. Various scenes fight for their right to be the fulcrum of the film from the pool party to a horrible, pitch dark car ride but it’s a fireside conversation between Kayla and her doting father that really captures the spirit of the film. The movement from Kayla tossing a box of her “hopes and dreams” onto a fire to ungainly leaping into Mark’s arms feels natural and sentimental in a way that’s never saccharine.
For a film about awkwardness and growing up Eighth Grade is astonishingly well put together. Jennifer Lily’s masterful editing fades in Kayla’s slack-jawed expression over her Twitter feed, K-pop videos and Snapchat filtered selfies all while Anna Meredith’s bombastic, glitchy score sweeps over and through the film. The closeness of Andrew Wehde’s camera flows from claustrophobic to intimate as naturally as water from a tap. Make no mistake Eighth Grade is a landmark in the packed hall of coming-of-age stories and in its humour, pathos and authenticity it can stand tall with the best of them.
15A (see IFCO for details)
Eighth Grade is released 26th April 2019