Reliving the eighth grade is no fun but watching this wise and wonderful film is worth it
Do you remember eighth grade? I remember it all too well. For me, it was the most difficult year of my life, especially in terms of relating to my peers. But I cannot begin to imagine how much worse that year might have been if I had been a girl in our age of social media.
That’s the premise of Bo Burnham’s debut film (he wrote and directed), Eighth Grade, which stars Elsie Fisher as 14-year-old Kayla Day. Kayla, in her final weeks of middle school, is trying to navigate the daily experience of being shunned or ignored by her peers. Kayla is certainly mortified by this experience, but she’s a remarkably self-aware and determined 14-year-old.
Viewers see the world from an entirely 14-year-old point of view.
Knowing she’s too quiet and that she lacks confidence and self-worth, Kayla films herself telling others like her how to overcome these weaknesses. Partly because of these videos (which she posts on YouTube, where they are also ignored), Kayla does make an effort to heed her own advice and move beyond her limitations, only to find those efforts backfiring on her (and doing things she will later regret).
At home, Kayla lives alone with her father, Mark, played by Josh Hamilton (Kayla’s mother has been out of the picture since Kayla’s infancy). As a single dad trying to support his struggling adolescent daughter, Mark is also a remarkable figure. Often unsure of what to do or say and sometimes doing things he knows he shouldn’t do, Mark is not perfect, but he’s one of the best dads I have ever seen on film.
Mark wishes Kayla would be present with him instead of always staring at her smartphone, but he doesn’t force the issue, even at the dinner table. He does, however, make sure Kayla knows he’s there, even when Kayla pushes him away. The result of this unusual relationship are scenes with Kayla and Mark that are among the best I have seen all year (one of them is the best).
It would have been great to know more about Mark and his life, but Eighth Grade is told entirely from Kayla’s point of view and we only see Mark when Kayla sees him and only know what Kayla observes about Mark at the time. I can’t fault the film for this because it allows viewers to see the world from a 14-year-old point of view. It does this so brilliantly, and feels so real, that even though my wife and I had very different experiences in eighth grade, neither of which resembled Kayla’s experience, we both spent the film reliving those days. This was generally not pleasant, but it made Eighth Grade that much more powerful and hopeful for us.
That the film feels so real has a lot to do with Fisher’s incredibly natural performance, which never seems to take a false step. The actors playing Kayla’s peers are also very strong, and I loved Hamilton’s understated performance as Mark. Of course, a lot of credit for these performances needs to go to Burnham’s subtle and pitch-perfect screenplay and flawless direction.
Quirky indie films like this often rely on lots of camera movement to augment the feeling of reality, but Eighth Grade does not do this. I, for one, am grateful. I thought the cinematography was excellent, as was the carefully-chosen music/score.
If I was forced to mention a flaw in the film, it would be related to how I felt the last half was much stronger than the first half. I think this has to do with the repetitive nature of some of the awkward scenes and stereotypical characters in the first half of the film.
But Eighth Grade is a wise, compassionate and life-affirming film that deserves a wide audience, an audience that should include teenagers. For this reason, I must comment on the R rating, which I feel is undeserved. While there is some sexual content in the film, there is no real sex, no nudity, no violence and only a few instances of bad language. I believe the film is suitable for viewing (and discussing) by anyone fourteen and up (in Canada, it is rated 14A) and actually more suitable than the PG-13-rated Mission: Impossible – Fallout.
Eighth Grade is rated R for language and some sexual material.