With a star making performance from Elsie Fisher and pitch perfect direction from Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade is a phenomenally well rounded delight of a film.
It’s certainly arguable that of all the art forms, comedy is both the most subjective and the hardest to get right. It’s ever changing, evolving and expanding; where one generation may herald Richard Pryor as the undisputed king, another will find his routines outdated and boring. In a world where comedy online has devolved into calling every joke a “meme”, repeating and stealing a joke made by an influencer over and over again, and self-deprecation acting as a form self-superiority, it’s a bizarre and rather bleak landscape, the truly unique comics are few and far between. But if you’re an active consumer of any comedy in such spheres, there’s no doubt you’ll have heard of and seen a routine or two of comedy’s new superstar Bo Burnham. An all singing, all dancing, all rapping, multimedia extraordinaire, Burnham’s highly choreographed, zany routine is interactive, introspective and intelligent; undoubtedly, Burnham is hugely unique comic.
With such a style, it’s always been a given that Burnham would soon turn his talents towards movies and, more particularly, directing. And now we have Burnham’s first film – Eighth Grade. Whilst comedy is hard to get right, and hardest on film, it’s no challenge for Burnham; Eighth Grade is one of the finest directorial debuts in a long time and one of the best dramedies of the decade. Acting as a slice of life narrative, the film follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) over the course of her last week of eighth-grade before her graduation and departure to high school. With this final week of her disastrously, cringey time in middle school comes the struggles of friendships, image, boys and, of course, social media.
Realism is something many independent directors strive to achieve, mainly in its humanistic, simplistic, every day mundanity, but what Burnham manages to capture in Eighth Grade is entirely different. This is a film that feels so firmly entrenched in the 21st century tweenage zeitgeist that it could be just as much of a documentary as it is a piece of fiction. The world crafted is one in which these middle schoolers quote vines, talk about Rick and Morty, have their faces buried in their phones, and, above all, try and act as cool as they can. This depiction perfectly portrays the self-confidence of such kids in their own personalities and around one another, allowing the audience to both laugh at the cringe-inducing humour that arises, similarly to many a Michael Scott from The Office moment, but also understand and feel immersed by this world. It’s the individual quirks put in by Burnham that subtly elevate Eighth Grade; be it the principal dabbing in front of the class, or the sex ed teacher describing the session as “lit”, Eighth Grade will transport any viewer back to the same time in their own lives, in all its universally awkward glory.
Speaking of awkward glory, Eighth Grade would be nothing without its shining star, Elsie Fisher. In a definitively adorkable performance, Fisher perfectly portrays the awkwardness of such a character; she’s not got everything figured out, she’s shy, quiet, not a loser, but not totally in with the popular kids, Kayla is a deer in the headlights. Fisher’s comedic timing is golden, executing Burnham’s witty, hilarious and honest script with such ease that it’s hard to believe that this is Fisher’s first true leading role. Kayla’s awkwardness and every-girl vibe are what makes her such a likeable and compelling lead, we yearn for this girl to be liked, accepted and to truly excel within herself as she comes of age. Whilst Fisher’s star making turn does dominate, it’s not the only impressive performance of the film. As Kayla’s father Mark, Josh Hamilton also captures an adorkable quality as the single parent who worries for his child as she struggles to blossom, making her cringe with every moment of his overbearing-ness, but Hamilton becomes hugely endearing in a wonderful role.
With this pitch perfect world and tone that Burnham creates, his direction is key. The comedic timing in his direction is perfect, translating moments of tween dread like a pool party and a confrontation with the popular girl into hilariously awkward scenes, again crafted with such life and realism that they feel like an experience we’ve all had. One particular moment featuring Kayla and a banana stands as a potential best scene of the year, as Burnham cuts shots and music, and uses the camera so meticulously to ensure laughs. But amidst all the laugh out loud humour, Eighth Grade bears a moving emotional core. Kayla’s coming of age sees two worlds collide, that of her innocent tween experience and the looming prospect of high school and having to figure out who one is and what they want to be. Fisher is stellar in the scenes, as is Hamilton as the supporting figure, Burnham manages to counteract the warmth with the harsh reality of the situation to perfection. He displays directorial nous far beyond his years.
Overall Eighth Grade stands as the perfect package of a movie. Funny, emotional, uplifting, devastating, it’s a film that will capture your heart from the first minute until the last and will inevitably leave a lasting impression. As a star making factory, both Fisher and Burnham emerge as thoroughly polished, sparkling gems of talent, two inevitable megastars that make Eighth Grade what it is. Kayla wants us to remain “Gucci!” throughout, and that’s exactly what Eighth Grade proves to be.
Eighth Grade (2018), directed by Bo Burnham, screened as part of the 2018 Sundance London Film Festival.