We all remember middle school. Some of you lucky folks might even remember it fondly. For most, however, it’s among the most awkward times of one’s life. Certainly, it represents a turning point in adolescence. The simplicity of elementary school is in the rearview mirror, while the intimidating world of high school is fast approaching. For his debut as a filmmaker, comedian Bo Burnham expertly mines this territory. The result is “Eighth Grade,” an incredibly perceptive movie about this chaotic time. Burnham not only reaches back into his childhood to tell this story, he’s able to tell it about a teenage girl. With great empathy and a well of understanding, he makes this hugely relatable, no matter who you are.
“Eighth Grade” is not only a showcase for Burnham, it’s also a breakthrough for lead actress Elsie Fisher. Together, they’ve crafted something that will stand the test of time. In the same way that “Lady Bird” spoke to so many, so too will this one. While it’s not as quippy or quotable, and unlikely to be the same kind of awards player, that takes nothing away from it. This is a high quality film with a lot to say. Burnham and Fisher deserve a ton of credit for creating a character that’s so real, you’ll almost swear this could be a documentary.
Kayla (Fisher) used to be a bubbly and outgoing young lady. When she entered middle school a few years ago, she made a time capsule that spoke to all of her best qualities. Her dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) still sees those qualities, though they’ve sunken into the back during Kayla’s senior year. Eighth grade has been a disaster for her, so while she puts a brave face on self-help YouTube videos that she produces, in the real world, she’s sullen and keeps to herself. Whether it’s being unable to talk to the boy she likes in Aiden (Luke Prael) or constantly looking at the Instagram of popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), she lives life in a form of quiet depression.
With the end of the year approaching and High School about to arrive, a number of events test her in new ways. Her dad gets her, in a roundabout way, invited to Kennedy’s birthday pool party. There, she gets a chance to talk to Aiden, as well as meet an odd young man in Gabe (Jake Ryan). They provide a staggeringly different portrait of the types of guys she’ll be pursuing/pursued by in the years to come. Then, a trip to her impending High School nets her an older friend, one who is also friends with a guy (Daniel Zolghadri) with much different designs on Kayla. All told, it’s a series of small moments that make up a crucial point in a young girl’s life.
Without question, Elsie Fisher is a real find. She imbues “Eighth Grade” with a realism that’s even painful at times. Again, while not as charming or instantly iconic as Saorise Ronan was in “Lady Bird,” Fisher gives you the performance that should remind you of someone you knew, or even yourself. There’s no artifice to be found here. Every moment rings true. When you cringe, you cringe because of how effectively she’s infusing the role with recognizable truths. It’ll be a pleasure to watch Fisher as she grows from here. This breakthrough role suggests a bright future ahead.
Josh Hamilton deserves credit too for making his supporting part so memorable. He may not be a cool dad, but he’s a loving one. Hamilton even gets a bit of a speech that should bring a smile to your face. Anyone would want to have his character as a father. The smaller parts given to the aforementioned likes of Catherine Oliviere, Luke Prael, Jake Ryan, and Daniel Zolghadri strike with realism too. They’re just far more in the shadows. Also on hand is Missy Yager, among others.
Comedians, especially ones who act, have made strong filmmakers for years. Going back even to Woody Allen, they seem to take to moviemaking very well. Now, we can add Bo Burnham to the list. His direction is confident and simple. His writing is deeply perceptive. Even when a character is doing something annoying, it’s because that’s how that sort of person would be in real life. Burnham clearly sees the world in almost a documentary-like way. He retains the humor that made him famous, but funnels it into only moments that make sense. This is an impressive directorial debut all around.
Considering that Eli Bush and Scott Rudin are among the producers, as well as A24 handling the release, the comparisons between “Eighth Grade” and “Lady Bird” are apt. The latter may ultimately be the stronger film, but the former is no slouch. In fact, it’s actually one of 2018’s better movies. Anyone who remembers the awkwardness of junior high will find a kindred spirit here.