Bo Burnham's directing debut, “Eighth Grade,” has generated buzz in the film industry for its authentic portrayal of the life of an eighth grade girl, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), as she endures her last week of middle school.
“Eighth Grade” has received rave reviews largely because of its honesty and authenticity. Unlike many films documenting adolescence, “Eighth Grade” dutifully captures the awkwardness and uncertainty of kids stuck in the gray area between child and young adult.
Burnham’s script, written in the undramatic style in which people actually speak, adds a dimension of realness as the characters stumble over their words or inject sentence fillers such as “like” or “uh.” Everything about Burnham’s script is human, allowing viewers to empathize on a more profound level with the characters and situations that transpire in the movie.
Burnham himself said that his film would not have been complete without Elsie Fisher, a 15-year-old actress known as the voice of Agnes from the “Despicable Me” movies. With her phone always in hand, un-airbrushed skin and slightly too big monogrammed backpack, Fisher charmingly pulls off Kayla Day, an eighth-grader-going-on-freshman trying to figure out who she is.
With great care, Burnham sketches out modern day eighth grade for the audience. He shows kids with rubber bands for their braces, a girl wearing clout goggles at a birthday party and middle school students stuck in the pubescent phase. These details evoke the “cringe” of that time period without glamorizing it.
Burnham does not spare the audience any awkward detail of Kayla’s life. In a slightly uncomfortable scene, Kayla practices kissing the back of her hand, and in another she looks up on YouTube how to give a blow job. These scenes may make some people uncomfortable, but they are necessary because of how truthful they are. The film could not have received such praise for being true to its topic had Burnham decided to cut the awkward scenes that might make some viewers wish they were not watching the movie with family members.
A critical hitch in Burnham’s plan is the MPAA’s R rating, leaving the target audience unable to see the movie without parental supervision. The MPAA gave it that rating due to language and sexual content.
One scene in particular cements the film’s rating: an older high school boy, Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), engages Kayla in a racy game of truth or dare in the backseat of his car that ends up with Kayla refusing a dare to take off her shirt. Riley claims he just wants to save her from the misery of being made fun of when her first high school hook up goes badly. In the theater, there was a series of collective gasps from the audience as Riley, who was driving Kayla home from the mall, progresses the game beyond the eighth-grade level.
This scene is a turning point in the movie, as Kayla loses her confidence and desire to be older or somehow “more” than she is. Throughout the movie Kayla posts YouTube videos on topics like “how to be yourself” and “how to be confident.” Yet after the incident with Riley, she admits to her very small YouTube audience that she is not actually that qualified to give advice and essentially describes the daily anxiety she experiences.
Kayla’s character arc is subtle yet touching, in no way hindered by the fact that it occurs over a brief span of a week. By the end of the movie, she has not definitively “found herself,” yet that only adds another layer of honesty: finding yourself is a long process, and it will not happen in the course of a week to an eighth grader. She also seems to come to the realization that she does not have to project herself to be somehow more than she is and understands that growing up takes time.
The film’s honesty does have limitations, though. Kayla evidently struggles with talking to others and likely social anxiety, but it seems that nearly every sentence she says to someone who is not her father (Josh Hamilton) is awkward. Often life is not as perfect as the silver screen portrays it, but Burnham might have taken it too far in the opposite direction in his attempt to be genuine. Yet this is a minor flaw, and is considerably preferable to a hyper-dramatized, stiffly-scripted film.
In nearly every way, Burnham's “Eighth Grade” offers a refreshing take on what it means to be caught in the turmoil of that formative time period.
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