You know how much I hate it when the UK gets shafted by film releases and has to wait ages and AGES to see movies that have been out in the US for months? Well, Eighth Grade might just be the worst case of this for some time. With an initial release date of July 2018 in America, it has taken the film nine whole months to make its way across the pond. This is already too long to have to wait, but when all you hear is amazing things from the second it was released in 2018, those nine months feel more like nine years!
Written and directed by Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade is a coming of age comedy drama that details the last week middle school week of thirteen year old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a bright young girl who is hampered by social anxiety. Shy and retiring at school but seemingly more confident in her behind closed doors guise as an advice giving YouTuber (despite receiving hardly any views), the film examines the ever widening gap between the real life a young teen lives in the 21st century versus the life they lead online, with all of the individual pressures and problems that both involve.
I’ll start by simply saying this. Eighth Grade is one of the best, most emotionally poignant, most sensitive, most heart-wrenching films I have seen this year, maybe even in the past five years. Covering topics like body image, the impact of social media, mental health, sexuality and issues of consent, the film forces viewers to immerse themselves in the unescapable awkwardness and anxiety of Kayla’s existence. There are times when it feels just as oppressive and nerve wracking as any psychological horror film, and the speed at which the film manages to change from light comedy to full blown stress and heartbreak feels so authentic to the teenage girl experience that it took my breath away.
As part of probably the last generation to have reached their teens before the full extent of the social media boom, I can’t say that I can relate to every detail of Kayla’s story, but what I can relate to is the feelings and emotions that those platforms help to evoke. There were lost feeling, lonely, stressed out thirteen year olds long before they had to worry about Snapchat and Instagram along with everything else, and the things that this young protagonist goes through both in her social life and in her relationship with her single father are so raw that one almost feels like an intruder for watching them unfold on screen.
The last couple of years have been a great time for poignant parent to child monologues, Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon coming immediately to mind. There is a similar kind of moment near the climax of Eighth Grade between Kayla and her dad (played by Josh Hamilton), and boy let me tell you, the poignancy of that scene had me audibly, uncontrollably sobbing. The writing in this film is absolutely superb. The fact that Green Book took home Best Original Screenplay at the Oscar’s while Bo Burnham didn’t even receive a nomination is an absolute travesty.
As Kayla, Elsie Fisher is a complete revelation. I haven’t seen her in anything before, but that certainly won’t remain the case in the future. Fisher somehow succeeds in becoming every single person watching, transporting us back to our own thirteen year old selves and forcing us, whether we want to or not, to find similarities in this character who wants so badly to be the perceived image of teenage perfection, but is battling with so many insecurities and anxieties at the same time. You want to be friends with her, you want to protect her, your heart breaks for her, and the worst part is that you know it is a journey she has to take on her own because we have been all there and done it. It is a fantastic, sensitive, painful performance.
Though Elsie Fisher is undisputedly the star of the show, an array of solid supporting performances are put in to help flesh out the achingly real feel of this universe. Alluded to above, Josh Hamilton as dad Mark is chief among these. With a long absent mother only briefly referred to, Hamilton is flying solo and gives a desperately endearing ‘dadish’ performance, one that makes you equal parts cringe, equal parts smile, equal parts frown, equal parts love. The father/daughter dynamic that the duo share is perfect, filled with awkward pauses and strained conversations, but the love and care and protective instincts are there when it matters and it is so beautiful and raw to see.
Young actors like Catherine Oliviere, Luke Prael and Daniel Zolghadri all give effective performances as various student peers in Kayla’s life, all of whom contribute to her anxieties in different ways, and all of whom act as a sombre and uncomfortable reminder to many audience members that they might just have been more like these characters in their own school days than the protagonist for which we are all rooting.
Overall, this is something I haven’t said since my review of The Favourite in January, but Eighth Grade might just be a masterpiece. If a film can make you relate, sympathise and empathise to the point where you feel like your entire body has been turned inside out, can make you laugh out loud one minute and uncontrollably sob the next, can leave you equal parts hopeful and emotional mess, well, it’s safe to say that it has achieved its goals. At times, Eighth Grade is achingly painful, emotional viewing, but another type of viewing it is above all else is absolutely, unequivocally essential.