Reel Time with Joel and Chase
What If Lady Bird, but Younger?
Title: Eighth Grade
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1hr & 34mins
**** (out of ****)
For me, the most disastrous school year was ninth grade, but certainly the year before high school starts is no gift from the gods (unless they were feeling particularly vindictive in their gift-giving). Eighth Grade captures the feeling of enduring that final year of school before the four years that prepare you for college, and even though I obviously have no reference point to know this firsthand, writer/director Bo Burnham’s film certainly paints a convincing portrait of a young girl’s experience with this precipitous transitional period. Delightfully awkward, often very funny, and containing multitudes, this movie is a gem.
This particular eighth-grade year belongs to Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who splits her time between being relatively unpopular at school and hosting a series of self-help videos on YouTube at home. Her mother left years ago, and her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) struggles with a daughter who, to say the least, isn’t receptive to his brand of trying to keep her attention. The videos are as much an outlet for her to do all the talking that she isn’t comfortable doing at school as they are an array of equally wry and naïve observations about human nature. The videos also provide some of the highlights of the movie.
Kayla stutters and stumbles over the points she wishes to make in the videos in a way that is both amusing and endearing. A lot of that lies in Fisher’s breakthrough performance, which provides the tricky legwork possible to find this character endearing. In an alternate universe, Kayla is a passive protagonist, observing everything around her but taking no real part in any of that. That is, as it turns out, kind of half true here, but only because Kayla is shy by choice and introverted by nature in public (though, if approached, she maintains that she’s as talkative and lively as anyone).
In practice, though, and through the gift of Fisher’s remarkable performance, Kayla is a rare find as a protagonist in that she grows in front of our eyes. Much of this takes place at school, where she deals with various problems and disappointing people. She doesn’t really have a best friend, relying on the willingness of others to approach her, although hope arrives when she and her classmates are taken to a high school and each paired up with a student (in Kayla’s case, Olivia, a senior played by Emily Robinson). She tries to befriend the stiflingly popular Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), whose single mother (played by Missy Yager) likes Mark, but only receives a cold stare.
Elsewhere, she nurses a crush on Aiden (Luke Prael), who prefers to receive sexual text messages from the girls he likes, and attempts to confront her own budding sexuality in the process. In a couple of amusing flourishes, Anna Meredith’s pounding, synth-heavy score is at its most pounding and synth-heaviy when Kayla claps eyes on Aiden and her attempt at researching how to perform a sexual act ends up being a little too intense for everyone involved. As a juxtaposition to this, a car ride with Olivia’s friend Riley (Daniel Zolghadri) turns really uncomfortable really fast when he unexpectedly parks the car.
Even with that excursion, the resounding feeling provided by the delicate handling of this material is to take away how funny and relatable it all is, particularly in a heart-to-heart between father and daughter (in which Hamilton’s own generous performance shines). Burnham, himself a former YouTube personality, navigates the video material with the subsequent honesty and charm, and the rest of this story takes on a timeless quality that manages to transcend the specificity of a young girl surviving the final year before high school. Eighth Grade isn’t foolish enough to eclipse that specificity, though. This is firmly Kayla’s story, and she’s gonna be ok.
(Review by Joel Copling)
(Review by Chase Lee)