If you thought high school was the worst time of your life, that’s probably only because you have psychically blocked out the emotional onslaught that was middle school. Like a hormonal Hunger Games, middle school is unequivocally the cruelest time in a young person’s life as they’re made to start meaningfully navigating social mores for the first time without the proper emotional and biological tools to do so. But nowadays, middle school is far different than when you or I attended it; with the proliferation of social media, young people have a whole new set of problems, and they’ve been trained from birth to embrace the comforting glow of screens giving them access to social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube–which are actually subtle ways of inducing brand new forms of anxiety in ourselves as we frantically refresh our feeds to see if we’ve received any new likes. Middle school is a truly awful time to be alive, but it’s one that Bo Burnham expertly examines in riotously funny and surprisingly heartfelt fashion in his directorial debut.
Eighth Grade tells the story of 13-year-old Kayla (played by the excellent newcomer Elsie Fisher), a girl who is in her final week of middle school and is deeply concerned about what lies ahead in high school. At school, Kayla is something of a wallflower, keeping to herself and watching the swirling chaos around her rather than take part in it herself, which even nets her the not-so-coveted superlative “Most Quiet.” At home, though, Kayla is an entirely different person, creating a series of YouTube videos in which she dispenses advice to teenagers like herself about how to be confident, how to be yourself, and basically any type of proactive behavior she doesn’t practice in real life. Glued to her phone or her laptop, she lives with her single father (Josh Hamilton), who is a perpetual source of embarrassment for her in spite of his best intentions. Yet as eighth grade comes to a close, Kayla tries to push herself out of her shell–sometimes by choice, sometimes by circumstance–as she braves a barrage of terrifying teenage trials like a pool party at the popular girl’s house, bumbling through conversations to impress her crush Aiden (who is, by all accounts, a complete jerk), and hanging out with genuine high school kids after spending the day shadowing a freshman named Olivia. It’s an intense, affecting experience for audience and Kayla alike as we feel deeply for this good-natured oddball trying to navigate the swirling eddies and pitfalls of middle school social life.
What Lady Bird did for high school in the early-to-mid 2000s, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade does for the modern middle school experience. Who would have guessed that Bo Burnham was the perfect vessel through which to channel the anguish, anxiety, and discomfort of being a teenage girl in the dog days of middle school? Much like middle school itself, the film is excruciating at times, and you will gnarl your spine into a wizard’s staff as you slither down your seat trying to escape your own visceral discomfort. It is also gut-bustingly funny with wry observations, incisive dialogue, and well-rounded characters that feel as though they could real-life kids and not the imaginary creations of a 27-year-old man. The film doesn’t shy away from darker subject matter either, exploring burgeoning sexuality, feelings of deep-seated alienation, and more in a tender, thoughful, realistic manner.
Perhaps most impressive, though, is that Burnham manages to create a film that feels so deeply authentic. Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen, especially at a festival like Sundance, but with Eighth Grade Burnham and his cast achieve a level of emotional honesty that is rarely seen on film. It’s a stunning film that is both hilariously uncomfortable and uncomfortably hilarious, aided and abetted by composer Anna Meredith’s terrific electronic score. If you have to relive the acne-and-angst-filled years of your youth, then Eighth Grade is the best way to do it.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Eighth Grade premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Click here for our complete coverage of this year’s festival.
Image: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
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