Nashville Film Festival Review: ‘Eighth Grade’ Gets High Marks

Stand-up comedian Bo Burnham makes his film directing debut with A24’s latest coming-of-age story.

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Stand-up comedian Bo Burnham makes his film directing debut with A24’s latest coming-of-age story. 

RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)

Ask any person to describe their youth, and one of the first things you’ll hear about is that eighth grade was the worst year of his or her life. This film critic can even attest to the fact that between insecurities, peer and parental pressures, personal strife and an uneasy introduction to the concept of dating, it was indeed a challenge to survive the final year of middle school. But when one looks back on that series of events several years later, it’s easy to wonder why they were worth the trouble in the first place. This year, A24 brings us standup comedian Bo Burnham’s directorial debut with Eighth Grade, a tremendous coming-of-age story about these very struggles, which are conveyed in not only a contemporary middle school setting, but also in a manner that’s hilarious, endearing and unflinchingly realistic. That’s in large part due to Burnham’s dedication to authenticity and a captivating breakout performance from Elsie Fisher.

Eighth Grade follows socially awkward pre-teen Kayla Day (Fisher) over the course of her final week in middle school, beginning with her receiving the title of ‘Quietest Girl in the School’ by her peers. When she receives the time capsule that she made for her eighth-grade self at the beginning of middle school (topped with the title she gave herself in sixth grade: ‘The Coolest Girl In The World’), she strives to come out of her shell and live up to her self-imposed title as she attempts to impress everyone she comes in contact with.

They range from her first-crush Aiden (Luke Prael) to the most popular girl in school Kennedy (Catherine Olivere) in a myriad of scenarios its audience will all find familiar: going to a heavily-attended pool party, learning how her body will change in the coming years, touring the walls and classrooms of what will be her high school and trying to understand the mystery that is sexual intercourse. Kayla does all this while avoiding her well-meaning single father Mark (Josh Hamilton) in favor of immersing herself in her own little world, the apps of her smartphone and recording videos for her own self-help vlog on YouTube.

What makes Eighth Grade a standout in the coming-of-age genre is its authentic portrayal of contemporary middle school. The student body is filled with hilariously off-key performances and eye-rolling meme drops. We spend agonizing amount of time in an off-key marching band practice. Unsettling active shooter training rehearsals are led by John Wayne wannabes.

Eccentric faculty members (one sporting a particularly gnarly rattail braid) do the dab dance to try and connect with the student body. There’s something for everyone to relate to over the course of the film that will take all in attendance on a nostalgic trip down memory lane to the days of youth.

This extends to the way Eighth Grade depicts the social pressures and anxieties that go on inside the mind of a normal pre-teen. Kayla tries so hard to spark conversation with her peers and be popular by giving a fun card game as a birthday gift to a preppy girl, only to be matched by awkward common ground about phone chargers and for the gift to be received with disappointing indifference. Kayla stutters and stammers her way through every video she records because she’s trying to be something she’s not, going so far as to cover topics such as how to be confident, put yourself out there and be popular. Her desire to possess all those traits is conveyed through what should be a star-making lead performance from Fisher, who brings so much realism to the character of Kayla that makes her so endearing, she’s impossible not to root for, no matter how many times she says ‘like’ in between every three words.

Burnham’s assured direction also succeeds at putting the audience into her headspace by panning the camera in a way that mimics every turn she makes to keep up with the conversation going on in front of her, by superimposing the images on her Instagram feed over closeups of her wandering (and wondering) eyes and by using a pulsing electronic score and soundtrack to enforce that her insecurities aren’t as large in scale as she makes them out to be. Kayla’s quest for social acceptance takes a turn for the unnerving on its way to the third act with a certain moment that could make audience members squirm with discomfort, but the suspense is effectively built throughout the scene, and the content involved is more relevant than ever in today’s social climate.

Meanwhile, the only real element that’s lacking, albeit in a minor capacity, is more background on Kayla’s father. Mark longs to connect with his daughter like she longs to connect with her peers. Quite frankly, she’s the only thing he has as a constant in his life. This dynamic begins to reveal itself in a scene where Kayla storms away from a Friday dinner after an argument about nothing. You think you’re about to better understand the man left eating, but the film doesn’t shift to his perspective. Then and throughout, you’re left wanting a bit more from his side of the table. But, like any good father, he’s there for when his daughter needs him the most, and his words of encouragement renew Kayla’s hopes and dreams while bringing a smile to the face of everyone watching the film (unless you had already had one going from the opening credits).

Overall, Eighth Grade treats its subject matter with a dedication to realism. Burnham gets a breakthrough performance from Fisher and conveys the perspective of his endearing lead character with care and authenticity in what is a very funny and ultimately touching directorial debut. Very few directors debut with high marks in the way Burnham has with Eighth Grade. Believe it or not, his film will make you want to linger within the memories of a middle school day, the ones that go long past the final bell.

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