Eighth Grade (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I did not want to see this film. A film about the hardships and awkwardness of experiencing eighth grade (even if it’s just from one eighth grader’s perspective) did not sound like my cup of tea. (I didn’t care if critics were praising it across the nation—critics also praised the well-crafted yet utterly miserable “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” a film about a shy 7th grade outcast.) My reason for this—I don’t have many fond memories of eighth grade, especially after a terrible seventh grade year. (Though, that’s not to say there weren’t bright spots here or there.) Any film that effectively captures what it’s like to be an outcast in junior high school is not going to appeal to me.

But…there is a first time for everything. I did catch Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” on DVD just recently…and I want to see it again as soon as I finish this review.

Many of us remember what it was like to be 13-14 years old. Even if we were popular in school, we still faced many a challenge within ourselves and within our social circles, such as going through puberty, finding our sexual identities, maintaining particular images for people, and other awkward, confusing aspects that come with the age. We went through hard enough times when we were alone—add school to it, and it makes things even more uncomfortable!

We know this. We went through it. And even though things are far different now than they were when we were in eighth grade (thanks to social media), that doesn’t matter because today’s eighth-graders still go through it. Do I have to bring it up? Yes, for this reason—“Eighth Grade” is a sweet, intelligent, sometimes-funny, sometimes-unsettling, always-accurate slice of life that I think today’s eighth-graders will gain a lot of insight from in order to feel better about themselves. (Forget the “R” rating—this film was made for the teens who need it!)

“Eighth Grade” is told from the perspective of shy 13-year-old Kayla (brilliantly portrayed by a natural Elsie Fisher). She has a collection of YouTube videos in which she sits in front of the camera and delivers advice to her peers. In these videos, she seems smart, outgoing, nice, and energetic…outside the videos, she’s mostly quiet, has no friends to hang with in the school hallways, and is practically invisible to all except her loving father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who’s been looking after her ever since her mother walked out on the family years ago. The film centers on Kayla going through her last week of eighth grade—she goes to a popular girl’s party, she tries making other friends, she shadows a high-schooler, she goes from one awkward situation after another in just a few days… I would turn the DVD off, and yet I kept watching. Even though there are many moments in which I was cringing for Kayla (particularly when the popular girl, Kennedy, has a puzzled reaction to her birthday present), I was impressed with each scenario played out. She goes through embarrassing moments and feels just as (if not more) shy and self-conscious as she usually does. But she keeps going anyway. It’s like she wants to follow her own advice—she knows what she has to do (for the most part—who knows the right answers at age 13?), and she just has to find the courage within herself to do it. (And it may be due to Fisher’s performance or Burnham’s writing/directing or a combination of both, but it’s impossible not to root for Kayla during all of this.)

Social media plays a big part in the film. It’s no secret that today’s teens are obsessed with it, and it’s summed up in a brilliant montage of Instagram and BuzzFeed images (set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”). It’s not seen as a criticism or a harsh judgment about how teens need to relate (sometimes, it’s used to help them relate by arranging to meet people in person)—it’s just seen as how today’s teens view the world. (And boy, don’t I feel old—apparently, according to an interview, actress Elsie Fisher argued to writer/director Bo Burnham, who’s 27, that teens don’t use Facebook…a social media outlet I use heavily.) And Kayla uses her YouTube videos to help express herself, because she can’t do it any other way. A biting piece of social commentary if ever I saw one is that teens contain two different personas—one for social media, the other for the real world. (Speaking of Kayla’s videos, there’s a brilliant piece of editing that incorporates them to help set up certain scenarios in the film.)

At first, I was ready to criticize Josh Hamilton’s portrayal of Kayla’s supportive father, who seems too nice and perfect and always ready to be there for his daughter in her time of need. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it actually makes sense—this man represents the parents that try to reach out to help their children in these times, even though they don’t want their help (or don’t want to admit it, at least), just as Kayla wants to ignore his parental advice until she feels like she’s at her lowest point. If he’s a little “perfect,” let it be—we don’t know what he’s going through in trying to connect with her anyway, so he may actually be hiding something we don’t get to see. Why criticize that?

“Eighth Grade” is a simple, effective indie film about how the little things feel even bigger, especially for a young teen. There’s no flowing narrative and no “big” moments for our protagonist. It’s just a modern-day slice-of-life about an eighth-grade girl going through the last week of school. That’s all it needed to be. What was the point of it all? It’s summed up in an unforgettable closing monologue in one of Kayla’s videos about how if we can survive this particular part of our lives, we can probably survive other particular points in the future as well. “Eighth Grade” doesn’t have a conclusion in which everything is woven together like a neatly-sewn quilt—it simply stops at a point in which we feel nothing but the best for this shy girl we’ve gotten to know for a solid hour-and-a-half, because hardly anyone else would.

And to think I didn’t want to…

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