Eighth Grade

by Toby Woollaston

American writer/director Bo Burnham brings his indie sensibilities to a coming of age tale that feels both wonderfully charming and fiercely honest. His ode to teenage angst has somehow avoided Hollywood’s habit of cleansing and repackaging the prickly topics in our lives for easy consumption. Instead, Burnham’s astute observations of a thirteen-year-old’s anguish captures that limbo period; a time in life when you’re trapped for a few tortuous years between the joy of childhood and the reality of being an adult.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is a naturally shy but determined girl finishing up her eighth-grade year. Her introspective nature, which she projects onto social media, supplies the film some of its most soul-searching moments and highlights the disparity between middle-school (intermediate for us Kiwis) and high-school. Her well-intentioned, but perhaps overly earnest father (Josh Hamilton) burdens Kayla with a further minefield of generational difference to deal with.

Eighth Grade courageously and unapologetically marches through some uncomfortable topics and threatens to go into some fairly dark places. Watching with my daughter (who is a year shy of Kayla) we hit on a couple of awkward moments but thankfully Burnham not only recognises the necessary to explore such topics but also when to back off before the pot boils over. It’s light on plot but heavily laden with observational insights that weave the very present scape of social media seamlessly into Kayla’s milieu without undue attention or hysteria. Burnham shrewdly captures the painful absurdities of adolescence with a wonderful balance of sharp-edged wit and sensitive understanding that Is both powerful and yet modestly delightful.

However, where this film really shines is in newcomer Elsie Fisher performance, whose role as someone on the brink of change is delivered with a rare authenticity. From her strained and awkward self-help youtube videos to her courageous efforts at putting herself out there at a poolside party for the “cool kids”, Fisher naively exudes screen-presence and a good dose of comic timing. Wait for Hollywood to sink its teeth into this rare talent.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.