I want to start this review with a spoiler alert, and it has nothing to do with the plot of “Eighth Grade”. Ordinarily when I am thinking about seeing a film, I don’t want to inundate myself with information, but I want to know a bit so I don’t go waste my time on something I should have known I wouldn’t like. That usually manifests itself in a quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes.
You get a general sense of the worth of the film, and there are a few go-to critics that I trust. Since on the first page there is just a line or two from many reviews, I end up knowing enough, but not too much. I had heard very good things about “Eighth Grade”, the first feature film directed by 27-year-comedian Bo Burnham. That was certainly backed up by the 98 rating on the site.
But next to the “Genre” listing, it says “Comedy”. I can’t think of too many things further from the truth than calling this outstanding film a comedy. There are a few chuckles, but even those are the result of painstakingly accurate depictions of the miseries of being 13 years old.
The film centers, and I mean centers, on Kayla, an eighth grader being raised by a single dad. She is portrayed by Elsie Fisher (and this is no hyperbole) in one of the finest performances I have ever seen on screen. Fisher has to, and does, carry the entire film. She is in virtually every scene, and in most of them is shot in closeup, bringing into harsh light every blemish on her acne pockmarked face.
Kayla is not unattractive, and she is only slightly overweight. She does not have a really bad case of acne, and can do a pretty good job of covering it up, which she works quite hard at. But she is uncomfortably growing into her still forming body, and generally walks about with a self-conscious slump.
The film begins with her delivering teen advice on her video blog, which she posts without much success on You Tube. These vignettes are inserted throughout the film, and we get to see what Kayla could be at her best. She speaks about “creating confidence”, and “putting yourself out there”, and she does it with gusto, closing with her tag word “Gucci”. She is a textbook example of “doctor, heal thyself” because the day to day Kayla can’t deliver on her own keen advice.
It’s the last week of eighth grade, and in an early scene, the superlatives awards are given out. Kayla wins “Most Quiet”. She has a crush on Aiden (Luke Prael) who wins “Best Eyes”, and wants the approval of the snobby Kennedy (Katherine Oliviere), who gets the girls “Best Eyes” nod. When each receives their award, they walk past Kayla, who earnestly says “Good Job!”. They each ignore her, one of dozens of slights that she receives. You just cringe time after time for her.
The gripping realism of the film makes you as uncomfortable as Kayla. You keep hoping, desperately, for good things to happen for her. You get rebuffed along with her. I have two daughters, and I will tell any father out there who does, that this film will hit you like a ton of bricks.
Her dad, played brilliantly by Josh Hamilton, is trying so hard to connect with her, too hard. She, of course, considers him an embarrassing nuisance, which he proves more than once despite all his best intentions.
Kayla is extremely shy, but she at least she tries to give her own advice the old eight grade try. Despite desperately not wanting to, she accepts the lukewarm invitation of Kennedy to attend her birthday pool party. It comes after she has recorded her “put yourself out there” video. In one of the several excrutiatingly spot-on scenes, Kayla gets past a near anxiety attack as she changes into her bathing suit to emerge into the pool area.
She is the only girl wearing a one-piece suit, and she does not look terrible in it. But her own insecurities are illuminated by the lengthy shot of her walking to the pool. No one is acknowledging her. She is shot from the back with slight back fat oozing over her straps. She shuffles meekly to the edge of the pool and quickly jumps into the refuge of the water.
Thankfully at that moment one of the few light touches in the film is provided by the goofy Gabe (Jake Ryan), who swims over, goggles and all, and tries to impress Kayla by such smooth devices as a hold-your-breath contest. Gabe later asks her for a date, another short comic oasis.
Hope seems to come when Kayla goes for high school orientation and is befriended by the senior she shadows for the day, the bubbly Olivia (Emily Robinson). Olivia is truly nice to Kayla, but even their relationship and Kayla’s association with Olivia’s friends ends up taking some difficult detours. That includes a tension-wracked back-seat encounter with a high school boy.
Most of the film is reserved for such brilliantly cringeworthy set pieces, none better than late in the film when Kayla sits in the backyard with her dad, literally watching her middle school dreams going up in smoke. She wants to know if she makes him sad and the speech he responds with is Best Supporting Actor stuff. Each performer is worth Oscar consideration, although films put out in August are generally long forgotten come Academy Award time.
Burnham being 27, means that he is not that far removed from his teen years, and he has concocted a debut that should have him making movies for a long time. Comedians often do great dramatic stuff, and he will have a very high bar to shoot for as he works to repeat this uncomfortable gem.
In addition to directing Fisher to her quiet tour-de-force, he captures and takes on the completely overwhelming impact of social media on the middle schoolers. Many conversations are had with a person directly in front of the other with their eyes on their phones, not the other’s face. The discomfort of learning about everything from pubic hair to school shootings at this impressionable age is also palpable.
If you are looking for anything close to a feel-good popcorn movie, run far, far away from “Eighth Grade”. If you want to see close-to-the- bone emotion, brilliantly portrayed, and can deal with squirming in your seat as you take this five-day journey in Kayla’s world, you will be rewarded.