Fifteen-year-old Elsie Fisher gives one of the year’s best performances in Eighth Grade, the simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming new film written and directed by 27-year-old stand-up comedian Bo Burnham. Fisher stars as Kayla Day, a kind and reserved teenaged girl (she’s awarded the “Most Quiet” superlative by her classmates) trying her best to make it through the final week of her painful middle school experience.
Doing their best to help her through the transition are Kayla’s single father, Mark, played by Josh Hamilton, and her high school friend Olivia, played by Emily Robinson, who are sometimes no match for the seemingly insurmountable anxieties and insecurities that Kayla faces on a day-to-day basis.
Burnham has crafted an often cringe-inducing but wholly empathetic portrait of teenage life that at once feels specific to the current generation of youngsters but also touches on universal themes that every adult can relate to as well. This is a film of quiet wisdom about how easy it is to get caught up in the emotion of the moment, especially during the hormone-charged teenage years, but also reflects on how time can change how we view ourselves.
Most films about kids of this age tend to come from the perspective of the adults around them; not only does Eighth Grade feel like it’s told entirely through the lens of Kayla’s world, but it also tends to loosen its focus around all of the other adults in the story with the exception of her father.
One aspect of teenage life that this film tackles better than any coming-of-age story that I’ve ever seen is the role that social media plays into how kids of this generation view themselves and the world around them. Filmmakers often skirt around social media, perhaps with the fear that including it in their work will date the material too much. However, Burnham not only embraces these platforms, but he incorporates them into the narrative in a way that feels completely organic to this character and her experience.
A prime example is the way that Kayla uses YouTube to create short self-help videos on topics like “How To Be Yourself” and “How To Put Yourself Out There,” even though these videos only tend to average a handful of views.
There’s a meta bit of irony to that detail, as director Bo Burnham made his career from the millions of YouTube views he received on videos of funny songs that he started to record at the age of 15. From this almost instant popularity, he transitioned to stand-up comedy and brought his cutting, clever sense of humor to the stage (his two most recent specials, what. and Make Happy, are both currently on Netflix and highly recommended). What’s remarkable about Eighth Grade is how Burnham avoids what I’m sure was a temptation to over-write this script, which favors sharply realized scenarios over sharp-tongued dialogue that fits much better inside this sensitive portrayal of early adolescence.
At the center of everything is Elsie Fisher’s work as Kayla Day, which is the type of performance that often gets overlooked by those who claim an actor is just “playing themselves.” Sporting chin acne and often unflattering apparel, Fisher lays everything bare here, but she also brings loads of charm and sweetness to the role that makes it effortless for us to get caught up in her story and her struggles. Together with Burnham, she has crafted a film that radiates with compassion and honesty during a time when both seem to be in depressingly short supply.
Note: The MPAA slapped this film with an “R” rating over a few instances of the F-word and some relatively mild sexual content. Parents: please don’t let this deter you from taking your kids to see this film. It’s more than worthy of your time and attention.
Coming to theaters this weekend:
Crazy Rich Asians, starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding, is a romantic comedy based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan.
Alpha, starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, follows a young man and his wolf companion as they fight the brutal elements during the stone age.
Mile 22, starring Mark Wahlberg and John Malkovich, pits a CIA task force against a terrorist group seeking to extract a highly-prized asset.
Also, Cinema Center will be screening The Death of Stalin, the hilarious political satire starring Steve Buscemi and Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor, which is still my favorite film of the year so far.
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