Review: ‘Eighth Grade’ is One of the Most Honest Films of the Year

Back in April, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the Bo Burnham film “Eighth Grade” at a film festival. The movie spoke to me instantly, especially as someone who considers themselves extremely shy and socially awkward. Even if you haven’t experienced those feelings, “Eighth Grade” is one of the most emotionally sincere movies you will watch this year. It also remains one of the years best to date.

“Eighth Grade” follows a young girl named Kayla (Elise Fischer) as she is about to enter the final days of Middle School. During this time, she attempts to make friends, attends a pool party, shadows a high schooler, and handles the difficulties of growing up in the age of social media. Kayla’s father (Josh Hamilton) tries to let Kayla know she’s cool, but obviously, parents don’t understand.

The real master in charge of this ship is Bo Burnham, who balances his amazingly heartfelt screenplay with masterful direction. Burnham, who made his bones as a YouTube star, has transitioned well into movies over the past few years. This direction is surprisingly flashy for a first time director, allowing the camera and visuals to often speak for him. His heart is on the page, and Burnham shines a light on the struggles of being a teenager in ways that should relate to anyone.

Despite very much being a film of the moment in regards to social media, it still deals with the problems of Middle Schoolers in a way that is proportionate and realistic. We all had moments that felt like the end of the world to us as young adults, only to realize later they weren’t going to destroy our world. Yet Burnham handles these moments with their Earth-shattering significance and grace, gifting the audience the empathy to connect with someone outside ourselves.

As Burnham juggles the emotions of a teenager, the pressures of social media, and heart all within the film, he also gifts us some real directing chops. His camera follows characters through the scene, allowing us to wander a pool party with Kayla as her invisible guardian. Burnham also lulls us into a false sense of security on occasion, before plunging us into tension driven scenes. There is one scene where the sound drops out and he leaves us outside of the moment, helpless as an observing wishing we can just hug Kayla. This kind of talent doesn’t come along often, and whatever Burnham directs in the future will now be must-watch material.

Fischer is excellent, and an excellent find to center this film around. She feels natural in the role, despite prior experience in various roles over the years. She can sell the emotions of Kayla in each scene and will make your heart ache for her. Beyond that, she can express emotion with a single look, showing her boldness, frailty, and anxiety all within a couple moments. Kayla wants to be an outgoing person, but Fischer gives her the subtext to let the audience know it may not always come to pass.

Hamilton is also excellent, bringing the ultimate Dad to life. He fits right in with Tracey Letts or Stanley Tucci, yet brings more weight to the role. This is a more serious turn than those characters, and may make you call your father as soon as you leave the theater. Hamilton imbues Kayla’s Dad with kindness and love in ways few fathers in film have ever really shown. It’s instantly one of my favorite depictions of fatherhood on film.

“Eighth Grade” might make you hesitate. After all, we got “Lady Bird” and “Edge of Seventeen” in the last few years. Do we need another teenage movie? The answer is yes, and for my money, “Eighth Grade” is the best of the bunch. What should be an interesting experiment as a comedian attempts to make his first feature is actually one of the triumphs of the year. Please see this movie as soon as you can. Then grab some chicken nuggets on the way home.

GRADE: (★★★)

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