Bo Burnham did something quite astonishing: he made a very accessible, very compelling coming-of-age film.
This may not seem like a revelation; there are tons of coming-of-age films released every year, often centered around high school students, all of whom are searching for themselves in a world that seems increasingly odd and uncomfortable. In fact, coming-of-age films tend to cover the same basic themes of alienation, bullying, breaking out of one's shell, and discovering inner confidence.
Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day during her last week of eighth grade, during which she struggles to connect with fellow classmates.
The difference between the usual coming-of-age film and Eighth Grade could not be starker, though. Comedy tends to be the lens through which tragedy is viewed, taking the gravitas out of the latter element. While these films are still well worth watching, and can even be considered great (Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused comes to mind) none of them have truly captured the young-adult experience quite like Bo Burnham did here. Kayla Day is a regular eighth-grader, someone who I could imagine being in school with. Her experiences are grounded and realistic, from the conversations she has with her father, to the ways she attempts to interact with girls who are more popular with her. While these elements of Burnham's scripts aren't groundbreaking (as I said, these are the same themes other writers and directors have covered), his direction and execution of these themes do feel fresh.
The best thing about Eighth Grade is that it treats Kayla as a person: someone who is flawed, who is struggling with her identity, someone who wants to be liked and accepted. She feels layered and complex; when people say mean things to her, or laugh at her, we see the consequences of those actions on her psyche. Even the smallest details -- from the way her face contorts into sadness when she hears her senior superlative, to the breathless way she talks on the phone while pacing back and forth -- inform her personality without using dialogue or exposition. In fact, one of the largest elements of her personality -- her disconnect with her father -- is never truly explained until the end of the film, even though we can clearly see an empty spot at the kitchen table.
In other words, Bo Burnham made a film that actually explores what middle-school (and young-adulthood) is like; he didn't make the typical coming-of-age film. He set out to tell a specific story about a young girl coming to terms with her own insecurities during the last week of her middle school experience. That is drastically different than what films like I Love You, Beth Cooper, American Pie, and Superbad offered us. Eighth Grade does not offer scenes of rambunctious parties filled with drunk high schoolers, nor does it create the "gorgeous jock" character who our protagonist befriends and/or dates. Instead, it is a stripped-down, turbulent, and complex film that is accessible to the current generation of young-adults and people like me, who left middle-school a decade ago. It is for these reasons that this film will be looked upon fondly as the definitive coming-of-age film for quite some time.
“EIGHTH GRADE” ★★★★½
written and directed by BO BURNHAM
Released August 3, 2018 || Rated R || 93 MIN