'Eighth Grade': A Review
A few months ago I posted an article about Bo Burnham's directorial debut, Eighth Grade, and how it was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. That article turned, more or less, into me blathering on about my obsession with the talent of Mr. Burnham and my faith in him to deliver a great movie.
Well the day has come, and after Eighth Grade had the best opening per theater average of the year, it has gotten a wide release. If you read the tag at the beginning of this article or have spoken to me in the last few days it should come as so surprise that Eighth Grade is everything I wanted and more.
Eighth Grade, written and directed by the musician/comedian/entertainer/internet wunderkind Bo Burnham, centers around Kayla Day, an 13 year old heading into her last week of middle school. Kayla, despite having a self help/motivational YouTube channel, struggles to find her place in the jungle that is middle school that is nostalgically hilarious and utterly terrifying all at once.
If my most likely unappealing and certainly boring overview did not sell you, please trust this next sentence. Eighth Grade is a flawless movie.
We will get back to that statement a bit later on, for now let's talk about the writing. In my opinion there is nothing harder to write than realistic dialogue, especially from the point of view of children. Most of the time the end result either ends up being a movie full of kids with the intellect of 45 year olds or 5 year olds. Not to mention adults are woefully bad at capturing the essence of how children/teenagers truthfully talk, Sean Baker did it beautifully in last year's The Florida Project, but that is because he is a premier filmmaker.
Bo Burnham absolutely nails it where so many others have failed and makes it look easy. Every bit...and I mean every single spoken word in this movie is dripping with a genuine understanding of who these characters are, without sacrificing the integrity in any way shape or form. Throw in brilliant pacing and perfect execution of the tone and themes that are strong throughout and you have a screenplay that will certainly be getting some love come award time.
Helping bring Burnham's words to life is a fairly low key cast that exceeds expectations. Elsie Fisher delivers a breakout performance in the lead role, and one that I'm sure was not easy. Most of the movie plays a fine line between awkward teen comedy and woeful embarrassment by surrogate. Elsie tackles both with astonishing prowess and transports the viewer right back to those fragile mid-teen years.
Even with Kayla's teen angst that, again brilliantly toes the line between embarrassing and familiar she still serves as a likeable and relatable main character after you check your ego and realize that we were all like that at one age or another, or still may be. Helping to keep Kayla in perspective is her Dad, Mark, played by Josh Hamilton. Hamilton has been in more than a few movies that I have seen such as Manchester by the Sea, Away We Go and The Bourne Identity, but Eighth Grade is the first time that he has broken into the spotlight.
While the character does not have a whole lot as far as character development or arc but everything you need to know about him is right there on the screen whether through his dialogue or his acting. Mark is just a single dad who is trying his best to connect and be there for his struggling daughter, while giving her space to grow, something I can only imagine is one of the hardest things for a parent to do.
Eighth Grade is full of great performances, both the big and small, and like the writing there is almost no blemish on any of them. For this credit has to go to Burnham who did such an amazing job directing this movie it is almost incomprehensible. His work with the actors alone is impressive but I think Eighth Grade may be the most visually satisfying movie I have seen so far this year.
The visual language that Burnham uses to get his story across is at times subtle and jarring when it needs to be and he uses both exactly when he needs to. There are no wasted frames or superfluous shots to stoke his ego and a careful viewer will get as much from the cinematic element as they will from the narrative.
Now I would like to return to my earlier statement, "Eighth Grade is a flawless movie". The first thing on my mind when watching a movie, especially one where I have intimate knowledge of the filmmaker is, "What is the director trying to get across". Surprisingly most of the time the answer is either difficult to understand or non-existent. The very best can do it with every single shot and even some of the really great ones struggle to properly get it across on occasion.
Bo Burnham successfully gets his point across every, single, time and does so with the skill and ease that we see from some of the best filmmakers. From top to bottom, end to end, Burnham never sacrifices and still hits every narrative beat and at least in my eyes every time he wanted to get a reaction, an emotion or even a passing thought into this viewers mind, he got it.
One of my favorite Bo songs is called "Art is Dead". It is not one of his funnier songs, he even begins by saying "This song isn't funny at all, but it helps me sleep at night." but the deep feeling of melancholy speaks to me more about who Bo is as a person than any of his other work. One of Bo's best assets as a comedian has always been the juxtaposition of something serious with something very silly, a skill that shows itself all over Eighth Grade.
Near the end of "Art is Dead", Bo sings the line "I am an artist please god forgive me, I am an artist please don't revere me, I am an artist please don't respect me, I am an artist feel free to correct me.". Bo Burnham has been someone I have revered since probably around my own trip through eighth grade but now Mr. Burnham has made it absolutely impossible to take his advice seriously. What he has simply created is one of the quintessential coming of age movies in film and has set the bar for the rest to be set in the digital age and placed himself as one of the most talented and intelligent creators of our generation.