Eighth Grade (2018) has a lot of elements that appeal to my taste. It’s a coming of age story written and directed by Bo Burnham about a 13-year-old finishing her eighth-grade year. The hype coming out of Sundance was also very positive, so it was an obvious choice to see at SXSW this year. Fortunately, it paid off in a big way. Update – I was able to see this film for the second time and it totally holds up.
Eighth Grade is far superior to that year you spent in middle school
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is about to finish the eighth grade and is still trying to figure out who she is. Her YouTube channel isn’t doing as well as she’d like, but she offers advice to kids out there who may be struggling. Her phone is her life, and an escape from her anxiousness and self-consciousness. She lives with her father (Josh Hamilton) who is as supportive as he could be.
Burnham demonstrates yet another talent in his arsenal with his directorial debut. Burnham was in attendance at the screening and lent a lot of insight into the process he used when writing this film. He wanted it to be about a person going to eighth grade and living right now. This was important when casting the actress, and he found the perfect lead with Fisher. She is charming and authentic in her performance. You’ll cheer for her, laugh with and at her, worry about her, and in the end love her as much as her father Mark does. Fisher was also in attendance at this screening and showed she’s not as shy or awkward as Kayla, and Burnham emphasized that this was a performance not just capturing a person, but being them.
There are a lot of insightful elements in this film that are clearly of the present. In the film, there is a scene where the students participate in a lockdown drill, a procedure put in place by most schools after school shootings became a norm in the US. There is a tinge of satire in the scene, and the moment is still centered around Kayla – but it is something a teenager has to be involved in. Kayla goes to the mall, a field trip to the local high school, a pool party, and, of course, middle school classes. Burnham and Fisher do a tremendous job of capturing the anxieties that an awkward teenager could experience.
The substance in this film is impressive and shows the care Burnham took with writing it
Of course, just following someone around doesn’t necessarily make for a good film. It’s the complexities of the character, the actions they take, and the outcomes of those actions that keep the audience engaged and caring. The relationship between Kayla and her father is one of the elements that definitely stands out. Hamilton plays such a great father character who is clearly unsure of how to best communicate with his daughter, but clearly cares and loves her, even when she’s snapping at him for one thing or another. He’s always cool, calm, and collected, and watching their relationship change is extremely heartwarming.
Aside from a strong grasp on the story, Burnham also demonstrates a solid visual language. Several Aronofsky-esque tracking shots are used as we follow Kayla through her world. One camera movement that stood out was watching Kayla looking for a food item of a certain shape. She goes to the refrigerator, and the camera is back long and dollying from right to left. She’s opening the door and looking around as the camera slowly reveals from the left side of the frame a fruit basket that is out of focus. As she looks to the fruit, the focus racks to reveal exactly what she’s looking for. The scene plays out in a comedic fashion that is expertly delivered by Fisher and Hamilton.
Coming of Age stories are among my favorite type of films, but there are plenty of bad ones. Burnham’s film is one of the great ones that will likely act as a lens of 2017 when looked back on in the future. However, the universal elements of being a teenager ring true underneath the present day facade. Eight Grade earns the Must See Rating.