Review: Eighth Grade

July 20, 2018

Ever since I discovered comedian Bo Burham, I’ve had a problem with him.  This problem doesn’t come from a place where I don’t find him funny or think he’s a pretentious douchebag, like some comedy snobs do.  I actually have a hard time wrapping my head around him because he’s so insanely talented and so young.  He’s only 27 and he’s already made four comedy albums that are brilliant to say the least.  Then when I saw the trailer for Eighth Grade and was moved to tears by it, you can imagine how difficult it was for me to see his name listed at the end as “written and directed by.”  I don’t know where the creativity and insight and empathy and pathos and humor comes from in this man but it’s not fair that it comes so easy to him.

Eighth Grade is a simple, small film about a girl surfing the waves of life as she graduates eighth grade and prepares for high school.  It stars Elsie Fisher (Despicable Me) in a star-making role.  Elsie, who is only 15, bravely wears no makeup and shows us a physical vulnerability that makes you want to look away at times.  She conveys a sense of panic and dread for wearing a bathing suit to a popular girl’s pool party with more skill than most A-list actors in a big budget thriller.  She’s lovable.  She’s funny.  She’s heartbreaking.  She’s the workhorse of this film and deserves heaps of credit and nominations.

Also deserving the same level of praise is her co-star Josh Hamilton (Manchester by the Sea, The House of Yes).  He plays her dad and although the film is not about their relationship, it becomes the soul of the film.  He portrays her father who loves her unconditionally and as deep as a parent should but has no idea how to communicate with his teenage daughter in a world that strives to isolate people as much as possible.  As you watch the film you may not think he’s as powerful as I’m giving him credit for but know it’s a subtle and soft performance and wait till the end.

What is so impressive about all of this is that it was made for less than $400,000.  In Hollywood terms, it might as well have been made for money found in an executive’s couch.  The stripped budget aided it’s authenticity and makes Eighth Grade feel like a documentary.  This works against the audience at times when things get very uncomfortable and tragic.  The realism makes you squirm and breaks your heart even more than a typical film would.  It also works that Burnham uses real phone screens with real social media interactions which almost no films do for a number of reasons.

Burnham is getting a ton of deserved credit for telling a story about what it’s like to be a 13-year-old girl and doing it so insanely accurately.  That is impressive but, as a parent, I think the same amount of deserved credit needs to be given to how well Burnham tells the story about what it’s like to be a parent.  He has never been a teenage girl and is not a parent so I cannot understand where the empathy comes from that runs so deep that he captures and conveys what it’s like.  The humor and the hurt is pitch perfect all while conveying a genuinely sweet and non-fraudulent message of kindness that doesn’t feel cheesy or forced in a time when that couldn’t be more needed.