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‘Eighth Grade’ (review)

Produced by Scott Rudin, Eli Bush,
Christopher Storer, Lila Yacoub

Written and Directed by Bo Burnham
Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton,
Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Fred Hechinger

 

The story’s as familiar as it is universal: an awkward adolescent withstanding the casual cruelty of the popular crowd yearns for an unattainable hottie who barely knows they’re alive while ignoring the obvious infatuation of a fellow misfit and recoiling from the advice and concern of a well-meaning but desperately uncool parent.

For Generation X, that teen protagonist was Molly Ringwald, for Millennials it was (arguably) Lindsay Lohan, and Elsie Fisher seems like a worthy Gen-Z inheritor of the Clearasil crown as Kayla in this middle school dramedy from comedian-slash-writer/director Bo Burnham.

Though not without flaws (like an ill-timed and unfunny set piece about school shooting drills), Burnham’s feature debut effectively marries classic coming-of-age tropes with some new perils of puberty specific to the 21st century, like the myriad ways in which social media amplifies the pain and confusion of an already volatile stage of life.

It’s bad enough, for instance, that Kalya wins “Most Quiet” in a school assembly (which she views as official confirmation of her unpopularity, since it basically means that her classmates never talk with her).  But thanks to the internet, she can further confirm her own marginalization via the embarrassingly low number of clicks she receives for her periodic YouTube posts on topics like “being yourself” and “being confident”.

To be fair, Kayla’s videos aren’t especially good (and she ends each of them with the annoyingly consumerist sign-off “Gucci!”, futilely attempting to “brand” herself with a catchphrase even less catchy than “Fetch!” in Mean Girls).  Yet Burnham cleverly uses the digital vignettes as a window into the personality of a shy, sometimes unlikable protagonist trapped between childhood and maturity who’s yearning to become a beautiful swan while secretly dreading she’ll be an ugly duckling forever.

And because the film submerges us so deeply into Kayla’s gawky, limited perspective (rather than the nostalgic comedic reminiscences of adults looking back on their youth after everything turned out okay), the fictional eighth grader’s mundane adventures strike closer to the unvarnished realities of adolescence than those of any cinematic character since Heather Matarazzo’s Dawn Wiener in Welcome to the Dollhouse.  For instance, in most teen genre flicks, the popular kids shower endless negative attention on the “nerds,” mocking them relentlessly — yet Eighth Grade perfectly captures the squirmy discomfort of agonizing self-consciousness while surrounded by people who barely acknowledge your existence.

Here, the simple act of attending a pool party alongside more physically developed classmates plays like a gut-churning act of bravery and unexpectedly drawing the focus of an older boy on a car ride home at night unfolds with the taut suspense of a horror movie.

Yet while Todd Solondz’s Dollhouse was relentlessly, hilariously bleak, Burnham’s film offers at least glimmers of hope thanks largely to the dorky-sweet unconditional love of Kayla’s father (Josh Hamilton) and the friendship of a high school “big sister” (Emily Robinson) who does her best to convey Eighth Grade‘s glass-half-full mission statement that imperfect people of all ages can somehow evolve into better future selves.  Life may not get much easier after middle school, but it gets better.

 

 

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