EIGHTH GRADE (2018) – Convincing, Contemporary Portrait of Difficult Middle School Years

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Elsie Fisher in EIGHTH GRADE (2018).

The best part about EIGHTH GRADE (2018), the new coming of age comedy/drama by writer/director Bo Burnham, is that it absolutely nails what it is like to experience one of life’s most difficult ages: eighth grade.  And it does it with the all important and clear message that life goes on, that it’s never as bad as it seems during that awkward year of transition, and that it’s all just a natural part of growing up.

It also serves as an accurate assessment of what life is like for today’s middle school students.

EIGHTH GRADE opens with main character Kayla (Elsie Fisher) recording herself on her computer as she shares advice for her fellow eighth graders. She does this numerous times during the movie, and these moments are worth the price of admission alone. She thinks and speaks exactly like an eighth grader, and to hear her share her thoughts on such topics as why you should just be yourself, and approaching life with confidence, is as refreshing as it is real. These chats are juxtaposed with Kayla’s real life experiences which more often than not don’t go as planned.

It’s the end of Kayla’s eighth grade year, and the film follows her final few days in middle school, having to deal with such things as being voted the most quiet girl in her grade, to trying to fit in with the popular girls, to living with her very well-meaning single dad who seems to annoy her with every positive word he says.

EIGHTH GRADE is a fascinating look at one of life’s most difficult years, and the writing is so sharp it captures this awkward time with amazing clarity. I know a little bit about this age group, since I teach middle school, and as the father of two adult sons, I survived the experience of parenting middle schoolers. And of course way back in the stone age I was an eighth grader myself. The film gets it right.

So, the question you’re probably asking is, if you hated eighth grade, why would you want to see this movie? The number one reason is that it captures what eighth grade is like for teens in the here and now, teens who are so locked into electronics they cannot put their phones down even in the middle of personal conversations, teens whose parents struggle to talk with them, teens who find active shooter drills at school dull and boring, and teens who fear growing up too fast.

It also makes a very poignant case for the seemingly endless amount of patience needed as a parent of an eighth grader.

And the script is so strong if you like good writing, you have to see this movie.

Writer/director Bo Burnham, known more for his acting than for his time behind the camera— in fact, EIGHTH GRADE is his directorial debut—has written dialogue that is so on the money with its depiction of middle school voices at times you almost feel as if you are watching a documentary. And his work as a director is just as powerful. So often the camera comes in tight on Kayla’s face and lingers there, capturing her feelings of awkwardness, inadequacy, and all too often discomfort.

There are lots of memorable moments in this movie. When Kayla attends a pool party hosted by the most popular girl in her class, an invite which she only received because the girl’s mother forced the issue, she literally has a panic attack in the bathroom before changing into her bathing suit. And once she does, the camera follows her slow uncomfortable walk towards the pool, where everybody seems to know everyone else, and she feels out-of-place. Her hunched posture during this sequence is on the mark, as is the pain felt when her birthday gift is opened to relative silence and frowns.

Speaking of pain, one of the more powerful scenes is when she is driven home by a high school student who decides to stop the car and get into the back seat with her. These few moments of the movie are extremely uncomfortable and unnerving because the boy’s intentions are clear, and when Kayla finally utters “no!” the audience nearly jumped out of its collective seat.

On the other hand, the joy Kayla feels when her high school mentor invites her to hang out with her and her friends at the mall is so palpable you’ll nearly cheer.

Some of the best scenes are between Kayla and her father Mark (Josh Hamilton). Mark is a patient loving father, but the harder he tries to connect to his daughter, the more she seems to push him away, yet he never loses focus, or his temper. Indeed, in one scene at the dinner table, when Kayla just wants to be on her phone, he displays composure that is beyond belief. And if there’s one part of this movie that might not ring true, it might be the saintly restraint displayed by Mark. While it is certainly admirable, and something that all parents of middle schoolers should strive for, having been there, I know that it’s never that easy to remain that patient.

One of the more disturbing scenes in the film only because it’s a way of life now for students across the United States is the active shooter drill at the middle school. As I watched this scene, I couldn’t help but hope that somewhere in our future, say fifty years from now, audiences might look back and wonder, “what was that all about?”  the way modern audiences do when they see scenes of bomb drills which took place in the 1950s.

As I said, EIGHTH GRADE is actor Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, and it’s an awesome debut to say the least. Both his direction and screenplay are Oscar worthy.

Likewise, Elsie Fisher is phenomenal as Kayla.  It’s such a natural performance. It’s clear that she’s not too far removed from the middle school experience. Kayla is an introvert, a quiet awkward student who doesn’t see herself as quiet outside of school and only chooses to be quiet in school. She is actually brimming with confidence and is constantly looking for any opportunity to show off this confidence, whether it be trying to get noticed by the cute boy in her class to getting along with her new high school mentor.

As Kayla, Fisher is in nearly every scene in the movie, and she carries this film with ease. She’s easy to watch, and Kayla is a character you are happy to root for. In a middle school world full of pretensions and meanness, Kayla is sincere and kind.

Josh Hamilton is also excellent as Kayla’s dad Mark. His unceasing patience is admirable, and the speech he delivers to Kayla late in the movie, where he tells her how happy she makes him, is one that I believe most parents of middle schoolers wish they too could make.

Emily Robinson shines as Olivia, the high school senior who is paired with Kayla during her high school shadow day. She’s perfect as the accepting high schooler who instantly connects with Kayla.

Jake Ryan also has a couple of noteworthy scenes as Gabe, the awkward yet friendly boy who strikes up a conversation with Kayla and later invites her to dinner at his house.

Sadly, the middle school itself is shown as something of a failure and not as a place that is doing a whole lot of good for middle schoolers. As I said, I teach middle school, and I’m fortunate to work at a school that makes middle school students its priority and prides itself on creating an environment where these students thrive.  I hope there are more schools like ours across the country rather than like the one depicted in this movie.

With up to date and realistic dialogue, and powerful and natural acting performances, EIGHTH GRADE is a convincing portrait of what it’s like to be a middle school student here in 2018. The film also communicates the uplifting message that in spite of the awkwardness and pain that accompanies the age, the future is bright for these students as they move on to high school and beyond. It’s a message that is both heartfelt and rewarding.

EIGHTH GRADE is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

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