Any film or TV series that deals with student life has the pressure of its cast delivering some great, relatable performances. That isn’t to say that child actors can’t deliver phenomenal performances, but some are still discovering what kind of actor they are so it can be real hit or miss. The last few coming of age stories have been promising so hopefully Bo Burnham’s directorial debut can follow that trend.
Synopsis: Thirteen-year-old Kayla endures the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence as she makes her way through the last week of middle school—the end of her thus far disastrous eighth grade year—before she begins high school. (A24)
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton and Emily Robinson
Writer: Bo Burnham
Director: Bo Burnham
Rating: 14A (Canada)/R (United States)
Running Time: 94mins
Writer-Director Bo Burnham started off on YouTube so it’s only fitting that he implements the platform he knows so well into this tale. The story follows Kayla (Fisher), an eighth grade student, who is trying to survive her final week of middle school with the aid of her friend and mentoring high schooler Olivia (Robinson) as she endures the bullying of Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), the unwanted attention of Gabe (Jake Ryan) and tries to get the attention of Aiden (Luke Prael). In her spare time, she creates YouTube videos for a small audience while being consumed by her electronics and avoids talking about her life to her over-involved single father (Hamilton). This is her story.
This film is able to take an overdone genre and bring something fresh to it thanks to many key aspects. For starters, the performances by the ensemble are fantastic and work perfectly for each role they are meant to fulfill. Robinson plays the optimistic senior who helps support the very unsure Kayla on her journey while Hamilton is great as the over concerned father figure, but the driving force of this film is Fisher as the lead. She takes this role and proves that only she could command such a presence giving enough uncertainty, emotion and anxiety to this character making so many of us relive those awkward moments in our own adolescent journeys.
This realistic character, as well as many others in the story, simply come to life thanks to the expertly crafted script. The blunt and truthful look into the struggles with identity not only in the context of middle school and adolescence, but with the added pressures of technology and social media, creates a tender and accurate commentary on the middle school experience. This is paired beautifully with Burnham’s direction that carefully constructs awkward cinematography, like extreme close ups of faces, as well as songs that follow the mood of the protagonist in order to completely immerse the audience in not only the plot, but Kayla’s emotions and by extension her fears. From this we do not see a cliched depiction of teenage life and the romanticized drama that comes with it, but rather an almost documentary-style dive into the real and blatant struggles of any teenager going through the first identity crisis.
Overall, Eighth Grade is a phenomenal coming of age story that looks into the psyche of a middle school student that feels the weight of the world on her shoulders. From its extremely relatable and awkwardly truthful story, stellar direction and captivating performances, this is one trip down memory lane worth revisiting. It is one of the most realistic depictions of teenagers exploring their identity.
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