Director: Bo Burnham
Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson
Running time: 94 minutes
A teacher who dabs; a Sex Ed video announcing to a class of less-than-enthused 13-year-olds that what they are about to watch is “gunna be lit”. Eighth Grade – Bo Burnham’s deliriously delightful directorial debut — understands these peculiar times we currently live in.
In more ways than one, this is a film that firmly gets with the times. Carrying a razor-sharp self-awareness, and cringe levels ramped up to eleven, Eighth Grade recognises that the conventions of the classic teen comedy — a genre that has long struggled to graduate from the school of cliché and condescendence — are no longer trending. Gone is the demand for jocks and cheerleaders, for prom pacts, for teens gazing longingly across a lake or field in search of answers to the most existential questions while some Chasing Cars-sounding, acoustic-heavy, syrupy pop ballad plays out over the top. In its place is the craving for something a bit more relatable. And, in 2019, that comes in the form of Kayla Day.
Being 13 and finding your place in the world is one thing. Being 13 and finding your place in a world of Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram is a different beast altogether. For Kayla (Fisher) — Eighth Grade’s nervy protagonist — this is a world defined by views, followers and likes. In the safety of her own bedroom, she pours out wisdoms on ‘How to be Confident’, ‘Being Yourself’ and ‘How to Put Yourself Out there’ all over her YouTube channel. In the vast, intimidating jungle that is middle-school, however, she stammers and stutters at any human interaction. Fighting inner conflict as the dawn of high-school days beckon, Kayla longs for the attention of the eighth-grade elite — namely, the attractive, but utterly charmless Aiden (Luke Prael). Her only recognition, however, comes in the form of being voted ‘Most Quiet’ at the end of year awards.
Burnham’s film is not so muted. With both wit and affection, Eighth Grade speaks loudly to millions, transcending age, gender and nationality by sticking to a singular, universal truth: that we were all young once. A film that feels personal to each and every viewer, Eighth Grade’s strength lies in its often painful honesty. From practicing blowjobs with bananas, to family heart-to-hearts, to disconcerting back-seat games of truth or dare, Burnham’s culture-savvy eye captures all the awkward, tender, touching and occasionally troubling moments that make up the adolescent experience with effortless authenticity.
Fisher is truly wonderful as Kayla. Perfectly balancing well-natured optimism with crippling nerves, Fisher nails the emotional and physical nuances — hunched shoulders; hesitant smile — of someone at an age where discovery is as much about the self as it is about the world around them. Proving once again that less is so very often more, every time Kayla chokes, every time she shies away, every time feels the painful sting of anxiety, we immediately relate.
Crucially though, Burnham never relinquishes the hope tomorrow brings. Warm interaction with an older student (Emily Robinson) and uplifting Rick and Morty references amidst blossoming friendship, however incidental, give a glimpse at a future happiness that might just be around the corner. However daunting Burnham paints the picture of teenage life, he has the astute sensibility to remind his audience that joy can be found even during what seem like the darkest of times — you just need to look in the right places. Well and truly lit.
Few films in recent times have captured the trials and tribulations of being young quite as authentically as Burnham does here. Heartfelt, humorous and honest, Eighth Grade is everything a coming-of-age tale should be. Easily one of 2019’s best. Gucci!…
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