‘Eighth Grade’ feels difficult, and that’s perfect

“Eighth Grade” – Kids can be kids in elementary school, and teens can be teens in high school, but what about middle school?  Well, unfortunate 11, 12 and 13 years-olds trudge, through that hellish purgatory between preteen innocence and young adulthood, otherwise known as middle school.

With social pressures, hormonal changes and anxiety at their peaks, these kids attempt to cope with their current, dire 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. existences that feel similar to a never-ending slog through mud pit, 18 inches deep.  Every step is a struggle, and to cap the misery, every kid – at some level, and yes, even the popular ones – are wrapped in insecurity about their actions and changing appearances.  Ask random adults about their eighth grade experiences, and they may appear to shiver in horror or shake their heads as a way to dismiss the question and memories of that confusing time.

Twenty-eight year-old comedian Bo Burnham decided to write and direct a movie about the Internet, which of course is a magical and equally confusing tool, but when he was looking for a lead protagonist, he settled on an eighth grader.

In a recent interview with the Phoenix Film Festival, Burnham said, “I think eighth graders are the only ones being themselves on the Internet.”

He added that his main character will be a girl, because “boys talked about Minecraft and girls talked about their souls.  Eighth-grade boys’ stories are just a little more cloister or closed-off.”

Hence, Burnham’s ground-breaking new comedy stars Elsie Fisher who plays an eighth grader named Kayla.   It is the last week of eighth grade in “Somewhere, U.S.A.” (but actually filmed in White Plains, NY), and Kayla, a painfully shy and unsure-of-herself 13-year-old dreads that she was just voted “Most Quiet” at the end-of-the-year awards.  Unfortunately, that mantra is accurate, because she silently wanders the halls, silently sits in class and silently participants in band, where she plays the cymbals in the back of the orchestra.  The cymbals may engender noise, but she truly lets her inner self and voice speak through her “how to” videos – like “Being Yourself” and “Being Confident” – and posts them online.  Ironically, she wishes that she was more herself, more confident, and so on, but those are tomorrow’s challenges, because she has to just get through today, which occurs every day.

Burnham’s camera follows Kayla through school, a pool party, the mall, and her home life, but the director and actress do not follow and/or utter one false note.  Every moment feels equally authentic and unexpected.  While each event in her life takes an original turn, magically, the picture also feels so familiar, as former teens can look back with horror and PTSD to those “oh, I remember that”, previously-buried memories.

Accompanied by composer Anna Meredith’s industrial soundtrack, her electric beats follow Kayla and mimic the character’s feelings of loss, lust and desperation and perfectly compliment and heighten her otherwise benign journey.  It’s benign from a distance, but enormously complex and impossible at ground-level.

Luckily, her dad Matt (Josh Hamilton) offers a continuously shining beacon of support and love, but Kayla does not quite wish to acknowledge his compliments and attempts to form two-way communication.  She absolutely loves and cares about her father, but more pressing issues like making friends, finding a boyfriend and reaching her hopes and dreams fill her mind instead.

The Internet, including her phone and laptop act as the tools to help fill her mind, and the movie incorporates the noise that these modern-day conveniences/obsessions weave into the fabric of this girl’s and everyone else’s life.

Standing tall with “Sixteen Candles” (1984) and “Superbad” (2007), “Eighth Grade” includes oceans of current teen-angst humor, while also staying relevant to the time period in question, 2018.  Although it is difficult to compare this comedy to past teen films, Burnham’s movie is just as significant and important, because middle school is still as much a purgatory today as it was 11, 34, 50, and 80 years ago….and farther back than that.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2   out of   ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits:  A24;  Trailer credits:  Movieclips Indie

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