Sunday 18 July 2021

Movie Review: Eighth Grade (2018)

A coming of age drama-comedy, Eighth Grade explores the tragically funny tortuous paths to adulthood as seen from the perspective of a 14-year-old.

Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is about to finish eighth grade and graduate from middle school. She is self-conscious, introverted, has no real friends, and voted least talkative in her class. From her bedroom Kayla records and uploads clumsy life-advice videos, but does not attract any views or subscribers. Her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) tries hard, but their relationship is as awkward as the rest of her life.

Kayla decides to listen to her own advice and take more risks. She attends the pool-side birthday party of popular girl Kennedy, although she knows Kennedy does not really like her. At the pool she meets Gabe, who is gawky but affable. Kayla then tries to impress the smug Aiden, a boy she has a crush on. At a high school prep day she shadows the friendly Olivia (Emily Robinson), who introduces the star-struck Kayla to her group of friends, but the more adventurous attitude brings new experiences Kayla may not be ready for.

Written and directed by Bo Burnham in his big-screen debut, Eighth Grade embraces inelegant self-doubt. Adopting a matter-of-fact view encompassing acne, a clueless parent, a hopeless crush, all-domineering social media, and the desperate need to fit in and find friends, this is a movie about the hopes and anxieties of the quiet kid no one notices sitting in the corner. 

But Kayla is very much a person worth knowing, eager to step into her future, aware of the need to find courage and push into uncomfortable situations. Every small forward step leads to small successes, some of them dubious, and also more challenges. Attending Kennedy's party presents a minefield of inglorious interactions, but Gabe is a potential find. Boldly approaching Aiden steers Kayla towards questionable banana interactions (and some of the film's best humour). The absolute thrill of basking in the presence of high schooler Olivia and her cohorts also exposes Kayla to unwanted attention. 

Burnham's exquisite writing is a loving tribute to Kayla's evolving brain on overdrive, running a furious race between where she is and where she wants to be. But some contrived moments do creep in, including a father-daughter talk bordering on cloying and a one-way confrontation in a school hallway offering redundant closure on a non-friendship. 

Elsie Fisher captivates in the central role and easily rides out the rougher patches, creating in Kayla a joyous bundle of tense jitters. With the end of the school year approaching, the self-awareness of a woman-in-the-making builds, including a better understanding of her vlog's real target audience.

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