Eighth Grade turns the most vulnerable time of our lives into a filmmaking miracle
Bo Burnham was an entertainer who we watched grow up on the internet. A YouTube star who quickly rose to fame with his own unique brand of musical comedy, Burnham evolved from a teen making quirky songs in his bedroom to selling out venues with shows that were emotionally complex, raw, and confrontational in a way few comedians would dare to attempt. Now, Burnham says he has left his stand-up life behind him, instead opting for a career in filmmaking, a calling he claims to have discovered over the course of making his first film, Eighth Grade. Not only is the result is a quietly masterful exploration of the pain we feel at the time in our lives when we are arguably most unsure of ourselves, it's the perfect outlet for an artist who has dedicated his career to addressing his anxieties about the complexities of our rapidly evolving world affecting the vulnerability of our youth.
The film follows the reserved, anxious Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she completes the final week of her eighth grade year. Spurred by her horror over being voted by her class as "most quiet" and facing the impending doom of high school, Kayla decides to push herself out of her comfort zone and along the way encounters a tidal wave of life-changing events.
One of the most admirable qualities of the film is its ability to conjure up your worst memories of your teens in a way that is both horrifying and cathartic. The experiences depicted here are sure to make the skin crawl of anyone over the age of 13, opting out of the school movie formula built on overzealous stereotypes and instead accessing the universal nature of the strangeness of our identity when we were young. Burnham, never afraid to explore truth in all its darkest forms, runs the gamut of awful scenarios from our adolescence: the awkwardness of first learning about sex, the discomfort over our identity, the horror of meeting new people and entering new periods of our lives.
In its most harrowing but bravest scene, we watch in agony and anger as Kayla is emotionally assaulted in the back seat of a car by a high schooler looking for sex. The few minutes that ensue are the most poignant, shocking moments of the #MeToo era of filmmaking. Burnham, whose feminist leanings are no secret, doesn't sugarcoat the nightmare of what we're seeing unfold. In the context of the movie, the statement is clear: we are failing the women in our lives, and most importantly, we are failing our children. There will be thinkpieces and tweets that will say the scene, despite the fact it's thankfully free of anything explicit, crosses the line. Women who have been in the same situation will tell you otherwise.
Where there is pain, there is also joy. Newcomer Elsie Fisher is an absolute marvel onscreen, turning in a performance so mature, real, and unbounded by fear that you will often forget you're watching a narrative film and not documentary. It's impossible not to fall in love with this character. You feel for her from the film's first moments and she stays in your head long after you leave the theater. She has produced what is absolutely one of the best performances of the year, a turn so instantly legendary that it will be an outrage if she doesn't receive awards recognition later this year. Even if she doesn't receive those much deserved honors, she can take solace in the fact that she has produced perhaps one of the all-time greatest portrayals by a young actor. Equally stunning is relative unknown Josh Hamilton (American Horror Story), who plays Kayla's single father Mark. His performance, along with an astounding climatic speech in the film's final minutes, will draw comparisons to Michael Stuhlbarg's somewhat similar role in last year's Call Me By Your Name, and for good reason. Both films work so effectively because the roles form the emotional backbone of their plots, reminding us that for all the misery we endure in our youth, there is someone there to pick us up without shame.
Behind the camera, Burnham shows an immediate knack for working in this medium, exhibiting the sort of patience and mindfulness for pacing and camera work that you would expect out of the most seasoned of filmmakers. He has an amazing team backing him up, with sharply lit work from cinematographer Andrew Wehde, ingenious editing from editor Jennifer Lilly (The One I Love), and an absolutely dynamite score from musician Anna Meredith. Meredith's score is perhaps the biggest off-camera highlight, serving as an unbelievably effective tool for Burnham to highlight his intended tones. One cue in particular, which plays whenever Kayla spots her crush, will assuredly go down as one of the funniest uses of music effects in filmmaking history.
By the time the credits roll, it's clear that Eighth Grade is some sort of miracle. It's funny, heartbreaking, and honest in a way that few films can ever dream of attaining. It's a vital, impossible to ignore moment in coming-of-age filmmaking. Don't mourn the end of Burnham's stint as one of comedy's sharpest minds. Celebrate the birth of what will most likely be one of the finest careers in modern cinema.