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November 17, 2018 | Rome, Italy

Anxious youth

By | 2018-09-08T11:41:49+00:00 September 8th, 2018|"Critics Notebook"|
Fourteen-year-0ld Elsie Fisher is Kayla Day in 'Eighth Grade,' Bo Burnham’s riveting first feature.
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irector Bo Burnham, in his first feature film, vividly captures the unrelenting anxiety of the early teenage years in “Eighth Grade.” Elsie Fisher, 14 at the time of filming, is captivating as the introverted and unhappy Kayla Day, about to graduate from eighth grade.

Kayla opens the film making one of her low-key, thoughtful advice videos, appropriately focused on “being yourself,” which is the last thing Kayla is or can be. Facing the camera straight on, with a round, clear, open face, she exudes cuteness and sincerity. Soon after, she’s seen as her real self, as her iPhone screen highlights her blotchy complexion, and her social interactions reveal her insecurities.

The viewer cringes with Kayla when she is voted “Shyest” of the eighth-grade class, even as her heart pounds as she follows “Best Eyes” (Luke Prael) sexily walking to receive his award. The girl most “out” of the crowd desperately wants to be part of the “in crowd,” epitomized by this dark-eyed sex object.

Invited by a mother to her in-crowd daughter’s pool party, Kayla reluctantly dons a one-piece swim suit that shows off her too-pudgy body and slumping shoulders. She literally squeezes through a sliding door to get out to the pool, where she stands at one end, only her face showing above the water. There she meets a fellow outcast, Gabe (a precocious Jake Ryan), looking a lot like a young teen version of Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock in the pool scene from “The Graduate.”

Most of the time the camera is focused on Kayla’s face. Fisher is riveting. It’s astounding that a 14-year-old can be this good at making one relive the high anxiety of those teen years. She seems more authentic than even Saoirse Ronan in “Lady Bird.”

Kayla is always on-screen, and the secondary characters remain very much secondary. Kayla’s only parent is Dad (Josh Hamilton), who is overly therapeutic, earnest, understanding, and tolerant to a fault, and—perhaps not the intent of director Burnham—cloying. Dad functions here as Kayla’s straight man, a foil for her emotional turmoil. There’s no backstory to why Mom left, just an empty chair at the dinner table (spatial relationships are important to the film). There are no helpful teachers or counselors. Kayla has no buddy. She’s left to her real self and her fantasy video self.

Director Burnham vividly captures adolescent worries.

A ray of hope intrudes when Kayla “shadows” a high-schooler for a day. The night before, she prays to God to give her “one good day”—and she gets it. The high-schooler (Emily Robinson) treats her with respect—albeit over-the-top and somewhat undeserved (“you’re so cool” …” you’re so cute”)—and invites her out with her peers. That leads to an uncomfortable (for Kayla and the audience) almost-sex scene. Along with a banana trope, that’s the closest the film gets to that subject.

At the end, Kayla makes yet another video, demonstrating her resilience and her faith once again in her “hopes and dreams.” But mainly the film makes us feel her pain. The emotional heat she produces approaches the fear one feels in a horror film—for almost the entire 90 minutes.

Burnham captures the essence of these barely-teenagers with teen-speak (“like…” “hmmm”) and 24/7 social media, demonstrating how different they are from older generations. In one scene, Kayla is a fifth wheel in a group of four high-schoolers meeting at the mall food court. Not only do they converse rather than stare at screens, but one of them asserts that Kayla, at most three years younger than they are, is a “different generation,” because she started using Snapchat in fifth grade.

Burnham planned to reveal the social media savvy of his characters by having them use Facebook. But his star told him, “Nobody uses Facebook.” He didn’t, and put that line from his astute young actress in the film. That’s just one of many good decisions Burnham made in writing and directing one of the best teen films of recent years. Like the classic “Pretty in Pink” (1986), it may stand the test of time.

Eighth Grade  ★★★ 1/2 Written and directed by Bo Burnham. With Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Jake Ryan, Emily Robinson, and Luke Prael.

William Graebner and Dianne Bennett
William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught Film and American Culture. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a mostly retired U.S. tax lawyer. They blog about Italy and can't resist movies.

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