Top positive review
Close to Perfect
Reviewed in the United States on August 12, 2018
A central unfairness of life is that we need to accomplish so many important tasks at such an early age—reading, math, distinguishing good from bad, and right from wrong. The flip side of this essential truth is that if we live to a ripe old age having accomplished nothing else of universal importance during our lifetimes, most of us can console ourselves with the knowledge that we at least survived the eighth grade.
It’s a measure of the effectiveness of the wonderful little movie “Eighth Grade” that so many viewers cringe so frequently throughout the picture, when they’re not covering their faces and groaning in embarrassment at the memories the movie provokes. “Eighth Grade” is a supremely accurate and resonant portrayal of an age when every day most kids are sure the world’s going to come to an end…and many of them hope that it does.
Fifteen-year-old actress Elsie Fisher plays Kayla Day, suffering through her final week of middle school, and trying to prepare herself emotionally for the transition to high school. Voted “Most Quiet” by her classmates, Kayla is so riddled with insecurity, uncertainty, and self-doubt that she posts motivational videos on YouTube almost daily as a means of somehow persuading herself that life isn’t as miserable as she knows in her heart that it truly is.
Playing Kayla’s well-meaning but bewildered single father is actor Josh Hamilton. Desperately trying to fill the roles of both mom and dad, Kayla’s father tries hard to comprehend the perplexing behavior of his daughter during her awkward transition from child to adult. He’s instinctively wise enough to be neither angry nor offended during a scene when Kayla is so acutely embarrassed by his very existence that she needs to hide in a photo booth with the black curtain drawn while communicating with him at the local mall.
Conversely, late in the picture there’s a scene in which Kayla and her dad are sitting quietly together and watching a bonfire in the backyard. Kayla has just experienced another emotional trauma while reaching out for acceptance and friendship among other students.
At one point, Kayla plaintively asks her father, “Do I make you sad?” The father, startled by the question, reassures and comforts his child with such a sensitive and philosophical response that Kayla impulsively bolts from her seat and catapults herself into her father’s lap for a loving hug. The scene is so beautifully rendered and deeply moving that it’s almost uncomfortable to watch—the viewer feels like an intruder eavesdropping on an intimate family moment, possibly the last time the father will ever hold his child on his lap.
Primarily known up until now as a stand-up comic, “Eighth Grade” writer and director Robert “Bo” Burnham appeared last year as one of the comedy club acquaintances of actor Kumail Nanjiani in “The Big Sick,” but also earns a tidy living on the side as a musician and poet. “Eighth Grade” is the 27-year-old Burnham’s debut as a feature filmmaker. Burnham’s stand-up comedy tends toward observational humor, which greatly enhances the effectiveness of his film.
Reportedly Burnham scripted “Eighth Grade” as tightly as a work by Arthur Miller or August Wilson. The director is said to have recorded actual conversations between teenagers and transcribed the results in an effort to identify patterns of speech, the vocabulary and rhythms of eighth grade patois. Then he scripted his own dialogue into that language.
The results make the performance of young Elsie Fisher all the more impressive. The young actress appears in every single scene of the 94-minute picture, almost in every shot, and the audience never questions the absolute, undiluted authenticity of her performance. Kayla Day and Elsie Fisher become almost indistinguishable from each other, a feat difficult for even seasoned actors.
From the first scene of this exceptional picture until the last, young Fisher owns the screen to a degree that the viewer can feel what her character feels: Rejection, heartache, joy and sadness—it’s all there. And at the end of the picture, when we see and older and wiser Kayla on her first real date—posture straighter, smiling more easily, more confident, less ugly duckling than an emerging graceful young swan—it’s a triumph of the human spirit.
“Eighth Grade” is gaining momentum like a tsunami: Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19 as part of the US Dramatic Competition, the movie opened on July 13 in just four theaters in North America, expanding to 33 theaters during its second weekend, and 518 during its third. Now playing in 1084 theaters across the United States, “Eighth Grade” during the week of July 29 was earning enough money to place twelfth in national box office receipts.
This is one picture that captures beautifully that awkward time of life between childhood and early adulthood. “Eighth Grade” is as accurate, and as affecting, as the films of Francois Truffaut, and one of those rare pictures that’ll make you laugh and cry at the same time. As Kayla says at the end, “You never know what’s next. That’s what makes things exciting, and scary, and fun.”
“Eighth Grade” is rated R, so actual eighth graders won’t be able to get in to see it—another unfairness. But the picture is enthusiastically recommended for the rest of us. Give it a chance—you’ll be glad you did.