‘Eighth Grade’ nails the highs, lows of its namesake



The first two things that eighth grader Kayla (Elsie Fisher) learns on her high school shadow day is that “High school sucks . . . but also, it’s like amazing.” The insane emotional ricochet of being a teenager has spawned countless movies over the years, but very few — if any — nail its highs and lows like Bo Burnham’s astounding directional debut, “Eighth Grade.”

The camera pans dramatically between theatrical, sweeping shots and frantic pacing while the soundtrack soars and soothes. The colors veer from vibrant, summery pastels to neon-punctuated bedroom darkness. A stunning soundtrack by Anna Meredith swings from intense unease to sky-scraping ecstasy.

Anchoring these grand stylistic gestures is Burnham’s sharp realism. His characters mostly look like real people, not movie stars, and they go through uncomfortable situations that are intimate and intense but so common as to be overlooked by many writers. No one’s pants fall down and no one gets tripped in the cafeteria. Instead, we have a nightmarish scene where a popular girl reacts to Kayla’s birthday present with disgust.

When the film reaches its darkest moment, there’s nothing visually on screen to rationalize the film’s R rating. Burnham refuses to cut corners with graphic content — relying instead on the natural tension created by hierarchal relationships and personal insecurities.

Lead actress Elsie Fisher rises to the challenge, embodying neither a bland everygirl nor a quirky vessel for witty dialog. She’s simply a person surviving middle school in a technologically obsessed world, trying to manage several presentations of identity at an age when one is difficult enough.

“Eighth Grade” could be called an exercise in empathy, but it’s simply too fast-paced, beautiful, and sporadically hilarious to be categorized as such. It’s a film that embodies the rush of possibility that comes with a new chapter of life. It investigates struggle but asserts the possibility of hope and love to overcome it.

After the credits roll, you can’t help but believe, like Kayla, that change — even technological and cultural change that overwhelms and terrifies us — is a good thing. Burnham’s film stands as the first evidence of that change: we can understand our brave new world if only we acknowledge the complex humanity of those who seem to be swallowed by it.

Rating: 4.9/5