2018-08-30 / Around Town

‘Eighth Grade’ Portrays Pitfalls of Growing Up

FILM REVIEW
By Loren King


Elsie Fisher stars as a modern middle-schooler in Bo Burnham’s memorable “Eighth Grade,” coming to the Jane Pickens Theater. Elsie Fisher stars as a modern middle-schooler in Bo Burnham’s memorable “Eighth Grade,” coming to the Jane Pickens Theater. An assured and astonishing directing debut from Bo Burnham, “Eighth Grade” is an incisive portrait of growing up in social media-saturated contemporary suburbia.

It helps that Burnham, who hails from the Boston suburbs, is just 27 and was even younger when he wrote it. Although that’s still a world away from the life of most 13-year-olds today, there’s an empathy and a sensibility that makes “Eighth Grade” specific and universal, with Burnham’s impressive comedic tone that’s never mean or condescending.

When we first see Kayla (Elsie Kate Fisher), she’s alone in her bedroom, recording and posting one of her advice videos for her imagined “followers,” though she appears to have none. Her advice is full of vague but well-meaning suggestions (“The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy,” she says with a gentle conviction) that betray her innocence and her yearning. Striving for the requisite online presence and persona, shooting selfies only after carefully applying make-up, while still so young and uninformed, is humorous and heartbreaking to watch.


Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. At middle school, about to graduate, Kayla is the quiet kid no one notices. She tries to make awkward conversation with peers, with tortured, halting cadence, switching opinions in the middle of a sentence. She doodles self-help ideas in her notebook, like “don’t slouch” and “find a best friend.”

At the invitation of the mother of a popular girl, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and encouraged by Kayla’s well-meaning but dorky single dad (Josh Hamilton), Kayla decides to attend a birthday pool party. Of course, her gift is all wrong and the only guest who talks to her is Kennedy’s nerdy cousin, Gabe (Jake Ryan). Without slipping into cliché or over-doing such an excruciating social ritual, Burnham nails the mortifying milieu of middle school made more horrific by the pressures of modern technology, where everything is filtered through a phone’s social media feed. A single shot of Kayla attempting to talk with two pretty, popular “mean girls” who don’t even look up from their iPhones says it all.

Since the story unfolds entirely from Kayla’s point of view, with Burnham often shooting with the camera following her, a strong lead is essential and Fisher absolutely owns this role with a performance so natural, innocent and awkward that it seems effortless. With nascent acne and a body she barely recognizes, Fisher perfectly conveys the misery that lives at the cusp of the teen years. As her dad, Hamilton is just as gawky as he tenderly tries to connect with Kayla. She snaps and resists, shutting him out, literally, with her earbuds, in a way so piercingly on-target that adults will cringe.

Kayla’s world brightens when her class is taken to the local high school and each student must shadow a senior to learn what awaits them. Kayla’s mentor is Olivia (Emily Robinson), who’s kind, sweet and sincere, and who offers Kayla the glimpse that hope might exist in the fresh start that awaits her. When she meets Olivia and her friends at the mall, Kayla’s hopefulness is palpable. There’s a great scene at the food court when one friend contrasts today’s high school and middle school generations. To make his point, he asks Kayla when she first got Instagram and reacts with amused shock when she answers “fifth grade.”

But darkness creeps into the joy of a budding friendship when, unbeknownst to Olivia, one of her male friends, Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), hits on Kayla in a way that’s confusing and disturbing and keeps the film in the murky area between darkly comedic comingof age and cautionary tale.

“Eighth Grade” is poignant and powerful, but Burnham’s tone distinguishes it from the depressing drama of Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” (2003) or the heavy-handed warnings about the internet of Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women and Children” (2014). Funny and heartbreaking, and anchored by Fisher, whose performance ranks among the best by a teenager ever, the film makes surviving early adolescence seem heroic, both for the children and for those who love them.

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