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With: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Luke Prael, Catherine Oliviere, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan
Written by: Bo Burnham
Directed by: Bo Burnham
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual material
Running Time: 94
Date: 07/20/2018

Eighth Grade (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Stuck in the Middle

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Surely one of the year's most notable writing and directing debuts, Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade succeeds in getting closer to the heart, mind, and soul of a young person than most other movies have ever dared.

Many movies either follow the thrilling adventures of lucky young people, or the sad, cruel events that befall unluckier children. Viewers usually witness from an outside place, either cheering along or shaking heads in grim realization.

Pete Docter's Inside Out brilliantly, cleverly imagined the inner workings of a young girl's brain, and now Eighth Grade does something close to that without the benefit of animation. This feels wonderfully real, mixed with pain, joy, uncertainty, and love.

Our eighth grade hero here is Kayla (Elsie Fisher, the voice of Agnes in the Despicable Me movies), and "hero" is an apt term for anyone that tries as hard as she does.

With long, stringy-blonde hair, acne-blotched face, and big eyes, Kayla first appears, as so many kids her age do, making a YouTube video. (Burnham himself arrived on the scene via his own successful YouTube channel.)

In her unerringly natural, unsure, searching way of speaking, peppered with "um" and "like," she tries to give advice to whoever's watching (not many), signing off with what she thinks is a cute catchphrase ("Gucci!!").

It's the final stretch of the school year. At school — where she is voted "quietest" — she has no friends, but she crushes on Aiden (Luke Prael), voted "nicest eyes." He is one of those cool kids that seem to have everything together, seems to not care a whit about anything.

She works up the courage to speak to him during a school shooter drill — this is a thing now — but the encounter goes shockingly sideways.

In the movie's centerpiece, Kayla is given a proxy invitation to the birthday party of Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), the most popular girl in school.

Burnham's handling of the scene is masterful, with Kayla rigid and terrified in a lumpy, green one-piece bathing suit, and literally everyone else at the party seeming relaxed and having a good time; a traveling shot and series of staccato cuts turn Kayla's first brave steps toward the pool into the stuff of stomach-clenching nightmare.

Kayla's father (Josh Hamilton) — no mother is in sight — loves Kayla and makes constant attempts to talk to her, but she pushes him away, and he's equally baffled and sheepish around her mood swings. In one powerful scene, she wonders if she makes him sad. His response is magical.

The movie takes a turn when Kayla spends a day at high school, assigned to shadow Olivia (Emily Robinson); the two girls hit it off, and Olivia invites Kayla to the mall. But an encounter with one of Olivia's male friends reminds us just how scary this world of being thirteen can be.

However, Burnham never lets the material become shocking or heavy; he's not speaking to adults about the surprising realities of children.

He demonstrates an incredible understanding and sympathy for his heroine, but he also seems to have a natural filmmaker's command of light, rhythm, space, and music.

Eighth Grade, not surprisingly, has technology and social media as one of its major themes, and it's exceedingly clever how it frequently juxtaposes the way things look with the way things are.

Kayla cracks her phone early in the proceedings, and continues to use it throughout, as she sends hopeful texts and happy pictures through the unsightly hairline fracture. There's an attempt to make everything seem peachy-keen, sometimes with cute little animal-ear filters, but life, especially at that age, is more about uncertainty.

Indeed, the biggest conflict in Eighth Grade, the scariest antagonist, is us, being too hard on ourselves. The miracle of Burnham's film is that it understands, and forgives.

The Blu-ray release from A24 and Lionsgate isn't really going to pop off of anyone's big screens, given that it's a deliberately drab-looking film, although the sound is crisp. Bonuses include an audio commentary track with writer/director Bo Burnham and actress Elsie Fisher, deleted scenes (12 mins.), featurette ("You're Not Alone: Life in Eighth Grade," 15 mins.), a music video, and lots of trailers at startup. It also comes with digital copy of the film. This is a wonderful film, and highly recommended.

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