Directed by: Bo Burnham
Premise: A teenage girl (Elsie Fisher) passes through the final weeks of middle school. She copes with the anxieties of early adolescence and struggles to define herself in an uncertain social climate.
What Works: Eighth Grade is an example of cinema as a vehicle for empathy. This picture centers on Kayla, a middle school student who is a bundle of anxiety, and Eighth Grade is an unsparing and honest portrait of early adolescence. We’re taken into Kayla’s life through an observational drama intercut with her social media stream and online videos in which she addresses the world. That combination gives Eighth Grade a lot of credibility and Kayla is a likable young woman whose life and experiences are presented in an accessible way. One of the many outstanding qualities of Eighth Grade is how it rejects the way so many films and television shows portray children and childhood. In a lot of mainstream media, children are magical and innocent and a lot of stories (particularly in the fantasy genre) focus on young people who are exceptional, implicitly reinforcing the cultural mantra that each of us is special and important. Kayla is utterly ordinary. Nothing about her is exceptional. She is an average kid. But the filmmakers believe that ordinariness is worth exploring and Eighth Grade builds a story around Kayla that is packed with reality and insight. The film’s portrait of adolescence is awkward, unglamorous, ugly or some combination of all three. Eighth Grade might be unbearable if not for how funny it is and for the extraordinary performance by Elsie Fisher. In another significant break from most Hollywood depictions of adolescence, Fisher and her teenage costars look their age. The filmmakers don’t disguise the imperfections of their skin and Fisher and the filmmakers capture the social awkwardness and physical discomfort of adolescence. Those qualities extend to the world in which these kids live. Eighth Grade was rated R by the MPAA primarily for coarse language. Naïve parents might find the movie shocking but this is an honest portrait of adolescent culture and despite its rating Eighth Grade ought to be seen by teens and their parents either together or separately. The film has a lot to show adults about the world their children live in and younger viewers stand to gain a great deal from seeing their experiences portrayed so vividly on screen.
What Doesn’t: The rawness and reality of Eighth Grade is slightly undone in the ending. Until that point, the filmmakers take an acne-and-all approach to their exploration of adolescence. The whole point of Eight Grade is to shatter the veneer of innocence that the culture—and especially adults—project onto childhood. But the filmmakers lose their nerve in the ending and retreat to a more conventional Hollywood-teen-movie conclusion. This can be interpreted cynically as a play for mainstream appeal but there’s reason to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and read the ending as a statement of hope. The implicit message of Eighth Grade is, “It gets better.” That’s a powerful idea that ought to resonate with viewers especially the teenage audience. A more ambiguous ending, like the final scene of Boyhood, might have been a better artistic choice, but the optimistic finale of Eighth Grade is consistent with the message embedded into the film.
Bottom Line: Eighth Grade is a terrific piece of filmmaking and an extraordinary look at early adolescence. While it’s geared to send the viewer off on a hopeful note it does so in a way that is earnest and well-intended.
Episode: #710 (August 4, 2018)