Eighth Grade focuses on a specific period in the life of its main character, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) who is at the precipice of graduating from middle school. Kayla spends her time glued to her phone (pretty much every character does), making anti-pedantic Youtube videos, and of course, crushing on the cute boy at her school. She navigates a minefield of social interactions with the “popular girls”, wearing a swimsuit at a pool party, and the prospect of entering high school–an even more daunting challenge than what she faces now. Every day is life and death in her world.Bo Burnham wrote this film and like Greta Gerwig from last year, it’s refreshing to see such a high quality project from someone whose directorial credentials have not yet been established. Burnham got his start as a Youtuber rapping, making jokes, and singing, among other things. His spirit permeates the entire film. My hunch is that Burnham gave some liberty with his actors to tweak the script and improv when they felt it would add to the drama, similar to what probably happened with The Florida Project. Ironically, this is in complete contrast with Gerwig’s approach to her process. If you were to make an online word-cloud of the screenplay of this film the words “like” “umm”, and “whatever” would dominate your screen. That is not, by any means, a knock on the screenwriting. Above all things, it’s accurate vernacular for its characters.
Elsie Fisher, who plays the protagonist, has never had any featured role before. She did some voice acting for the Despicable Me franchise, but this is definitively her true breakout. She has such an impressive ability to be nuanced and flamboyant at the same time. She captures the spirit of an adolescent in transition perfectly. We absolutely should be looking forward to more quality work from her.
From a cinematographic standpoint, the film’s use of steadicam throughout a large portion of its duration provides a realism to the narrative and complements its other main camera use–the selfie or webcam perspective. It is as confidently shot and directed as well as any mainstream and larger budget film could be.
One of the takeaways I gleaned from this film that Burnham highlights is the discordance between teenagers’ emotions and their ability to use a still-developing vocabulary to characterize their feelings. It seems that as humans our emotions evolve faster than our linguistic capability to be effectively or concisely defined. This is highlighted by both the screenplay and the liberty, I assume, was given to the actors to improvise.
This is a great film, with great writing and direction. It has a lot of heart and understanding. It is self-aware and honest. It will make you laugh out loud–our theater was in stitches at a few points. At times it will make you a little teary-eyed. It’s awkward yet enjoyable. This is eighth grade. We are on a metaphorical roller coaster that perhaps a lot of us didn’t enjoy at the time, but looking back I think we can at least appreciate it. I encourage everyone to see it. It’s a truly remarkable directorial debut. I’m excited to see more from Burnham.