The Movie Gurue: ‘Eighth Grade’ beautifully, painfully real
Rating: R for language and some sexual material.
Written and directed by: Bo Burnham.
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri and more.
Grade: Four stars.
If you’ve ever been an eighth-grade girl, Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” might give you war flashbacks.
A beautiful, often painfully honest look at a week in the life of a girl in middle school, “Eighth Grade” is a fictional story that feels more real than most documentaries. Anchored by a fantastic performance from Elsie Fisher, the movie tosses aside all the traditional teenage movie cliches for an intimate, moving portrait of a girl trying to survive what feels like one of the most formative times in her life.
The movie covers the last week of Kayla’s (Fisher) middle school career, which hasn’t been going as positively as she once hoped. She’s ignored in school, her videos aren’t getting views and the guy she has a crush on only cares about girls who send nudes. She struggles to navigate a world that ranges from hilarious to terrifying, trying to figure out who she is and how to become who she wants to be.
Burnham, who has been mostly known as a comedian up to this point, either has preteen nieces and amazing observation skills or is in telepathic communication with one. The movie’s channeling of a particular pre-teen girl experience is uncanny, both in a timeless sense and in a way that’s particularly relevant for girls today. The fact that Burnham could capture that, especially in such a raw, empathic way, is a gift.
Sometimes, though, it’s not the easiest gift to experience. “Eighth Grade” will startle at least a few solid laughs out of you, but there are also moments that will have you shutting your eyes and putting your hands over your ears. One sequence in particular will make you want to yell at the screen because you’re terrified you know what’s going to happen even if Kayla doesn’t have the experience to see it yet.
A Movie To Feel Less Alone
Fisher is a revelation, fearless and vulnerable by turns. The role requires an almost painful level of honesty, and she delivers at every turn. That’s part of what makes her so sympathetic, even when she’s at her most sullen — she’s utterly real, even at her worst moments.
Josh Hamilton also does an excellent job as Mark, Kayla’s father. He’s far from perfect, but he tries so hard that he subverts the usual “hapless father” cliche that plagues so many movies. Together, he and Fisher are key to one of the most beautiful moments in the movie, a scene that will put tears in the eyes of any number of parents and children in the audience.
The movie is rated R for a few uses of the F-bomb, all of which are far less than what you’d hear in the hallways of an average junior high, and it’s heartbreaking because pre-teen girls are the very people who need to see this movie the most. Watching Kayla’s journey, I’m certain, would help them feel less alone.
It helped me feel less alone, even though it’s been several years since I was in eighth grade myself.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.