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Review: Eighth Grade

July 20, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is having trouble finding her place in middle school, and the final week of her last academic year before starting high school is charted in Eighth Grade.

The film opens with Kayla filming one of the videos for her YouTube channel, where she tries to impart wisdom about “being yourself,” but seems unsure of how to apply this advice to her own life. Her awkwardness in front of the camera is cringe-inducingly palpable, making us feel every single “um” and “uh” and nervous pause.

From here, Kayla goes to school where she struggles to make conversation with her disinterested classmates, and, as if things weren’t already bad enough for her socially, she gets crowned “most quiet” at her school assembly.

This is one of those slice of life movies where not much happens in terms of plot, but at the same time it feels like everything is happening for our protagonist. Kayla gets invited to a popular girl’s (Catherine Oliviere) pool party, and tries to get the attention of a boy (Luke Prael) who catches her eye, but is sort of an aloof jerk. She lives at home with her awkward but charming single dad (Josh Hamilton), who gently tries to pry into his daughter’s life at the dinner table, but gets the same bored or annoyed treatment from her that she gets from her classmates.

The feature debut of standup comedian Bo Burnham, who writes and directs the film, Eighth Grade has a sort of awkward charm to it, sometimes feeling painfully real in how it depicts the almost unbearable shyness and social anxiety of its main character. This is a coming of age story for the generation of amateur vlogging and Snapchat, and it effectively depicts how hard it can be for a quiet, sensitive kid to try and make friends, perhaps even more so in the age of social media and people staring at their phones instead of looking at each other.

It kind of goes without saying that the story itself doesn’t really break any new ground in terms of the coming of age genre, and there is a feeling of slightness to it at times, especially in comparison to some of the rapturous responses it has received. But this is almost beside the point. This is a small film about little moments, which are captured in a believable and relatably lifelike way, and it succeeds modestly but satisfyingly on these terms.

The film is carried on the shoulders of Elsie Fisher, who does a great, naturalistic job of portraying her character’s awkward adolescence and crippling social anxiety. We really feel her pain, and she provides an anchor that keeps us reliably interested in Kayla’s sometimes funny, sometimes gutting middle school exploits. What Eighth Grade does is that it allows us to feel like we have gotten to know her a little bit, and leaves us genuinely hoping for the best for her.

Eighth Grade is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

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