Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” Shines the Light On an Awkward Time

By Scott Kurland

Film: Eighth Grade

Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Luke Prael, and Imani Lewis

Rated R

Director: Bo Burnham

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                The eighth grade is a horrible time for anyone trapped in Middle School. It's the year where you slough off the friendships you forged in elementary school. Your body becomes an acne-ridden hormone factory and most days you just want to watch the world burn. Plus, if you’re like me, your baby fat won’t go away and no one understands your movie references because no fourteen year-old has seen “The Sting.”  As the title suggests, this week’s film “Eighth Grade” from comedian and actor Bo Burnham casts a spotlight on this wonderfully awful time in our lives. Let’s find out how well he captured middle school shall we?

                “Eighth Grade” is the story of the painfully shy Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) as she tries to navigate the last week of middle school. In an effort to shake away the pain of the past year and put herself out there, she creates YouTube videos from the comfort of her bedroom. Nevertheless, she still feels adrift. When her father Mark (played to perfection by Josh Hamilton) attempts to help her, she pushes him away... because parents just don’t understand, right?  Kayla's final week kicks off her journey of self-discovery. But will it be as beneficial as she hoped?

                This film should be shown to every eighth grader and their parents as a form of homework. Burnham successfully captures both the innocence and the awkwardness of this delicate time period. Whether it's the classically subtle passive aggressive “popular girls,”or that shy loner who is brimming with potential; Burnham introduces these characters in a way that feels simultaneously nostalgic yet fresh. The film begins in the style of early Richard Linklater films like “Dazed & Confused” and “SubUrbia,” and then Burnham flips that framework on its head. These characters are real people ripped from real life. Kayla could be any 13/14 year old. Her dad Mark is the caring single father who wants to protect his child. Both make mistakes. Both strive to be better.

                I’m hearing a great deal of buzz regarding newcomer Elsie Fisher, but she isn’t new. Elsie has been in Hollywood for years. You may know her as the voice of the youngest daughter Agnes in the first two “Despicable Me” movies or as Kevin Costner’s daughter in “MacFarland, USA;” but its her role as Kayla that will propel her into stardom. Fisher gives the performance of a lifetime. She beautifully conveys Kayla's fears, insecurities, and joy. I haven’t seen such an honest performance from a child since Abigail Breslin in “Little Miss Sunshine.” Fisher could quite possibly be nominated for an Oscar come award season. She is that good. She carries this film from beginning to end and never once do we tire of her. In the wrong hands Kayla could come across as an ungrateful brat, but Fisher sells the hell out of this role.

                 Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s dad also gives us an effective performance. Yet another actor who has been flying under the radar in Hollywood for years, mainly an indie actor.  I know him best from his appearance in the indie film “The House of Yes.” Hamilton is one of the best things about “Eighth Grade.” His character tries so hard to be a good parent but he feels like he’s failing at every turn. Hamilton makes Mark the perfect combination of awkward, corny father and part-time superhero in the eyes of Kayla. This film succeeds because of Hamilton’s chemistry with Fisher and it’s absolutely incredible to watch on screen.

                “Eighth Grade” is a fantastic, heartfelt love letter to a horrible time in every teenagers life. Burnham does a tremendous job as captain of the ship. The cast is exceptional and the story is so pitch perfect. I won’t give too much away, but there is a first date scene that will just melt your heart. Do yourself a favor and check out “Eighth Grade.” Hopefully, come award season, this film is remembered because it is fantastic.

REVIEW RATING: A+

scott kurland