‘Eighth Grade’ covers gray area between childhood, adolescence
Last year, "Lady Bird" made a splash critically and commercially with its realistic depiction of the high school career of a young girl trying to navigate life before her leap to college.
There's a strong chance that if the character of Lady Bird had had her middle school years documented, the result would look similar to "Eighth Grade," the writing and directorial debut of comedian Bo Burnham.
It's a daunting task for any filmmaker: to cover that gray area between childhood and adolescence, since each experience is so varied and personal. Add to that a 27-year-old male comedian with no real cinematic experience writing a part for a 14-year-old female; it can be particularly tricky.
Having come quite a ways away from my own eighth-grade experience, it feels awkward to even review a film that seems so intimately connected to its lead character. But the resulting work is resonant to any who have had to endure that awkward, paralyzing, dread-inducing rite of passage.
As the film opens, we are introduced to Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher, in a revelatory performance that might be overlooked because of its authenticity. She's shooting her latest YouTube tutorial video offering life lessons. She has very few subscribers, so the process is more therapeutic for her than actually serving an audience, but nonetheless she speaks on topics of staying true to yourself, having confidence, and peer pressure. Kayla fails to apply these same kernels of wisdom to her own life, though, as she quietly and insecurely wanders the school halls with a desperate need for contact or acceptance.
This need is especially applicable to the dreamy class bad boy Aidan (played by Luke Prael), who slows time in Kayla's world whenever he enters her line of sight. The camera stays predominantly focused on Kayla's last days of middle school, as we witness the painful slog where she's not necessarily mistreated as much as she is unnoticed. She forces a smile that seems to block up a wash of tears behind it, and soldiers on with quiet determination.
Her single father (played by Josh Hamilton) tries desperately to connect, motivate and support, but he is the target for all her pent-up frustration as he is the only one with whom she is comfortable letting her sullen side show. The film's rather loose narrative follows Kayla's final week, which is filled with the "forced fun" rituals of school, one of which involves opening a time capsule left in sixth grade for her future self. Her letter is self-addressed to "The Coolest Girl in the World," which is now merely salt on her wounds. A high school field trip to shadow a senior is more inspiring, but is still filled with painfully awkward conversation and dangerous obstacles.
But "Eighth Grade" is the not a depressing journey of a sad teen, nor is it a madcap exaggeration of "Diary of A Wimpy Kid"-like hijinks. Burnham demonstrates deep compassion for his character, and both he and Fisher are not afraid to let Kayla be viewed in an unflattering light as well, both figuratively and metaphorically.
Instead, they give us a character that is not meant for Ferris Bueller-like greatness, nor destined for Juliet-like tragedy. She is the person you pass by in the hall without making eye contact, the person who was in your class who you barely remember. But Burnham and Fisher make sure that her life's story is just as necessary, relevant, and essential as any others who earn their peers' attention and accolades. They have certainly earned mine.