Eighth Grade is the painfully awkward, incredibly accurate, agonizingly earnest film about life as a middle school that you never knew you wanted. I mean, who among us wants to go back to eighth grade? This critic for one would take the hardest of passes on that particular opportunity. For me, like most of us, eighth grade stands out as an era of uncertainty and limbo where past and future were equally disconnected. Everything was hesitant and gawky and it all seemed to last forever. Better to leave those memories locked up deep, right?
Enter, Eighth Grade, the debut feature from writer-director Bo Burnham that will ensure you relive every agonizing moment as you journey with Kayla through her final days as a middle schooler. IT makes a certain kind of beautiful sense that it would take a comic’s eye to see the tragic beauty in the height of awkward phase. Burnham’s script spares Kayla none of the valleys of life as a middle-schooler, and as it turns out that’s an incredible gift. She’s our heroine and it’s difficult to think of a gauntlet more daunting than the home stretch of eighth grade. There’s the struggle to establish yourself as an individual while also being accepted, the dreams and nerves about what comes next, the slings and arrows from all sides — and all of it is some kind of relentless struggle. It’s no wonder the refuge of home and comforting music is never so heady nor profound as it was then.
Elsie Fisher, the dynamo at the center of this emotional juggernaut, guides us through Kayla’s life and times with an unflinching honesty that is typically the domain of much older performers. She’s compelling without trying too hard and so natural the piece occasionally feels like an artfully sculpted documentary. It isn’t, but dammit if Elsie Fisher isn’t the real thing. Paired with Josh Hamilton as her devoted, if sometimes clueless father, Elsie Fisher will tear your heart out, but she’ll take real good care of it and deliver it back to you just a little fuller than it was when she claimed it for her own.
See Eighth Grade with your old friends and celebrate the fact that you well and truly made it through to the spectacular creatures you are now. Then see it again with your favorite youth, and even though they’ll roll their eyes at you, tell them how amazing they already are, because that’s terribly hard to see from inside the swirl of hormones and cliques and trends and feels. But from where we stand now, this film is an incredible testament to the wonders and horrors of youth. Good on ya, Mr. Burnham.