Eighth Grade: Remember and Quake!

Eighth Grade (2018)
Directed by Bo Burnham
A24, 94 minutes, R (dumb rating for language, sexual situations)

“I wish I could go back to eighth grade.” Said no one ever. Bo Burnham’s surprisingly sharp and realistic look at adolescence might well be the year’s most terrifying film.

I was once a teacher in a grades 7-12 school. Years later, when I’d encounter former students, some would ask me, “What was I like back in junior high school?” I’d smile and ask, “Did you like yourself when you were 14?” When they inevitably said "no," I’d chuckle and reply, “No one else did either.” Lest you think me cold-hearted, my retort never failed to induce an instant burst of knowing laughter. If you remember those days—the middle school years in larger school districts—you’ probably agree that it’s a miracle any of us survive the experience.

Bo Burnham makes his directorial debut with Eighth Grade and he apparently recalls those years with gothic clarity. His film is more like a dark tone poem than a conventional narrative. This is as it should be, as eighth grade might be the reason scholars (like Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner) developed the concept of liminality, those befuddling in-between moments that are so shapeless that they are defined as neither this nor that. Adolescents are textbook cases; they are neither children nor adults. Add raging hormones, in-process identity formation, and a tissue thin boundaries between reality and fantasy and stand clear—the situation is as volatile as a mad chemist mixing explosives.

Burnham’s story is appropriately slight. His youngsters, played by mostly unknown actors, live in the world of impression, imagination, and emotional fragility. Burnham focuses on Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) and her last days of middle school. She is glued to her smart phone and laptop to such a degree that she’s struck a deal with her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), that she doesn’t have to talk at the dinner table on Fridays. He’s a single dad; his wife walked out on the family when Kayla was an infant. Mark has goofball charm that Kayla finds totally annoying. He cares deeply, but the best he can do when Kayla throws a wobbly is try to get out of her way.

Kayla has two masks, a fantasy alter ego in which she covers her zits with makeup for posted advice videos on how to be popular, have confidence, be yourself, and so on; and her actual experiences in school, where’s she’s a slightly pudgy, acne-spotted, depressed, quiet kid with few friends. As middle school winds down, students look at memory boxes they made as 5th graders and there’s little to cheer Kayla. Even worse, she’s roped into going to a swimming party at the home of Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), the spoiled queen of the cool crowd. It doesn’t go well. (Is that a spoiler? Do such things ever go well?) The only glimmer of hope is a day in which the middle schoolers visit the high school they'll enter in the fall, and Kayla’s guide is the kinder and way more mature Olivia (Emily Robinson), who gives Kayla hope that fantasy and reality can merge in the future. Even this comes with bumps and potholes.

You could have written that script yourself. That’s because Burnham has made a (mostly) realistic film about what it means to be a teen. This isn’t Fast Times at Ridgemont High, School of Rock, Dazed and Confused, Clueless, Mean Girls, or any of the scores of other films in which adolescence is dramatized or lampooned by older actors, and the faux youths navigate thinly veiled young adult situations. Some of the aforementioned are entertaining movies, but they don’t make you think, “Wow! That was what school really felt like.” Eighth Grade will, which is why it both entertains and makes you shiver.

Film fans will recognize a few scenes that pay homage to The Graduate, including a performance from Jake Ryan, who channels the awkward quirkiness of Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock as we could easily imagine him at 14. Ryan even looks the part. Elsie Fisher is wonderful as Kayla. She makes us believe she’s 14 for a simple reason: she was 14 when the film was in production. I suppose she must be more poised in real life, but she’s clearly in touch with the churning cycles of elation and deflation that mark the early teenage years.

To be sure, this isn’t a perfect film. Josh Hamilton—who looks a lot like ESPN’s Mike Greenberg—overplays his cluelessness to the point where he’s not convincing when he gets serious. The film’s resolution feels rushed and clichéd, and at times the tone balance between poignancy and humor undercuts Kayla’s depression. Or maybe it just seems this way because everything is confusing during adolescence. This film made me remember and if I could relive those years anew, there’s not enough money in the world that could convince me to do so!

Rob Weir

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