Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Eighth Grade

Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan
Director: Bo Burnham
Running Time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Rating: R

I could tell this movie would be special in just the first 3 minutes of the film. Written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, you're immediately transported to a typical eighth grade class. We see students sniffing permanent markers, playing with the rubber bands on their braces, stacking crayola markers to make sticks - yep, been there! Such nuanced moments really spoke to the time period of the film and the world these pre-teens live in. I wondered if older generations would enjoy this film as much as I did, since eighth grade doesn't seem that terribly long ago to me. As the film's conflicts and themes unfolded, I realized that anyone can relate to this film, regardless of age, race or gender. Even though the main character is a 13-year-old white girl, it's a universal story, crafted into a brilliant film.

Elsie Fisher portrays Kayla with such ease - you can hardly tell she's acting at all. The pimples on her face, the smudged make-up, the slouched posture - she's just trying to figure it all out. She doesn't have any friends and barely says a word at school, yet is addicted to social media and films her own self-help vlogs (video blogs). We feel sorry for her, and root for her to break out of this neurotic, isolated shell.

Perhaps Kayla's first major social interaction comes when she attends a birthday party for Kennedy, the cool girl at school, whose mom guilt-tripped her into inviting Kayla. We suffer right alongside Kayla, who practically panics the entire time until she meets Kennedy's cousin Gabe, who is very self-unaware and is as awkward as she is. It nearly broke my heart when Kennedy "ooh-ed" and "aah-ed" over everyone's "cool" gifts, and dismissed Kayla's card game gift with disgust. Everyone can relate to the mean, cool girl that you want so badly to impress, but just can't.

The soundtrack is very much in your face. Several scenes had me laughing out loud, when the music would reflect her pulse racing as she sees the class hottie. Her mouth would be agape as she stared at this prepubescent 13-year-old boy with lust and wonder. She even kisses her hand at one point, pretending it's him - what teenage girl hasn't done this?! How did Bo Burnham know?!

Kayla's relationship with her single dad is complicated. The two clearly have a bond, but she often reprimands him for being corny and ignores his efforts to reach out to her. Kayla nearly dies from embarrassment when he catches her in a compromising position with a banana. His monologue toward the end of the film reminded me of the infamous Dad monologue in "Call Me By Your Name". Regardless of this caring father, I was left wondering if her lack of self-confidence had anything to do with not having a mother figure in her life.

Her class goes to a high school "training day", where she meets Olivia, a senior who takes Kayla under her wing, giving her the boost of confidence she so badly needs. She also turns out to be Kayla's first friend. A touching scene with Gabe toward the end of the film leaves you with hope that Kayla will find her self-esteem and be able to move on from this difficult phase of her life.

Several scenes in this film are so viscerally awkward that everyone in the audience reacted differently. Some people slouched down and could hardly look at the screen, while others laughed out loud with a nervous giggle. It's remarkable how well this feeling of discomfort was translated through the screen. I absolutely loved this movie and believe that anyone will be able to connect with it.

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