13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) struggles with insecurity, loneliness and alienation as she's about to graduate middle school. She expresses her thoughts and feelings in videos that she posts on YouTube. Her widowed father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), raises her all on his own and lets her attend a pool party celebrating the birthday of her classmate, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere). A high school junior, Olivia (Emily Robinson), spends a day with her to as part of a shadowing program to give her a sense what life is like for a high school student in hopes of making her transition between middle school and high school easier.
Like many great coming-of-age movies that came before it, Eighth Grade defies both genre and plot. To describe its plot wouldn't do it any justice because it's not really about its plot; it's fundamentally about the emotions found at its core. Writer/director Bo Burnham gets inside the mind of Kayla just like Truffaut did with Antoine, Richard Linklater did with Mason and Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes did with Enid. Not since Boyhood has there been a film that captures adolescence with such unflinching honesty. Every single scene rings true, so don't be surprised if feel as though you were watching a documentary. The film's emotional truth not only derives from its organic, nuanced screenplay, but also from its raw, breakthrough performance by Elsie Fisher. She's a revelation and actually becomes Kayla, so, from start to finish, you forget that you're observing someone who's acting. Burham wisely understands that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes, so kudos to him for including many details about Kayla and her life with her dad, friends and classmates. Her video diaries on YouTube do break the fourth wall, but not in a lazy or contrived sort of way, i.e. voice-over narration. You don't have to be an eighth grader nor a female to relate to Kayla. Anyone who's ever gone through a turning point in their life while struggling to navigate through an ocean of mixed emotions ranging from excitement and joy to frustration, anxiousness, loneliness and confusion will be able to relate to her. Eighth Grade should be mandatory viewing for all eighth graders.
Eighth Grade, like Boyhood, teases the audience with a few scenes that almost veer into very dramatic territory. Just when you think some "big spectacle" will happen to Kayla, it doesn't. A timely, provocative scene involving a school shooting drill might lead some audiences conditioned by Hollywood to incorrectly believe that it's a foreshadow and that there will have to be a violence school shooting later on in the film. A scene with Kayla in the backseat with an older teenager also cleverly subverts one's expectations. The film is filled with many small moments that are so much more than their sum. The film's "Spectacle" can be found within its truth, so there is indeed perfect balance of Truth and Spectacle. Anyone who complains that "nothing happens" in the film isn't pay much attention or looking beneath its surface. Although the cinematography and music add plenty of style and substance, but there's also plenty of substance when it comes to the profound message about being true to yourself. Fortunately, Burnham doesn't allow any cheesiness, preachiness or pretension to seep in. At a running time of just 94 minutes, Eighth Grade, is a genuinely warm, tender and wise coming-of-age film that ranks among the great coming-of-age films like Boyhood, Ghost World and The 400 Blows. It deserves be become a sleeper hit that will be on many top 10 lists at the end of the year.
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