‘Eight Grade’ (Review) Surprise Hit of the Year?

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Every year we have that one film the comes out of nowhere and surprises us with how entertaining it was. In 2016 for me it was ‘Sing Street.’ Last year it was ‘Get Out,’ and after watching ‘Eighth Grade’ it is without question in the running to be my surprise hit of 2018. It was a fun, naturally charming story starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, and Emily Robinson. It is written and directed by Bo Burnham in what is his first full-feature film.

The story centers on a slightly withdrawn teenage girl named Kayla who lives with her father. She goes about a normal life and is simply just trying to maneuver her way through the last week of the eighth grade. While also dealing with both the fears and optimism for what high-school will deliver, and the many other struggles of adolescence.

Now I’m a male in my forties. The story of a girl dealing with her last week of middle-school quite honestly is not a plot-line that would generally appeal to me. Unless by chance the school is being taken over by rebel forces, or they all must fend off attacking zombies, the notion of being able to connect with a teenage girl in a story seeped with emotionally driven subject-matter is a long shot. I could still very easily enjoy the film but relating to the emotional struggles of her character-arc could possibly miss the intended connection from my perspective.

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Much to my surprise however, I did connect with the main character. Her internal anxieties genuinely resonated with me, and I absolutely loved the journey this story took me on. This film thrived on three things; the performances, the progression of the story-line, and the consistently natural tone of the dialogue. I had the pleasure of moderating an in-theater Q&A after the film with Elsie Fisher, and Emily Robinson to which they provided a ton of insight to the methodology of the film-making for this project.

This is the first feature film for writer/director Bo Burnham. I asked Fisher and Robinson about the dialogue structure as well as Burnham’s overall improvised approach. They expanded more on Burnham’s mentality of wanting the kids to be kids, and for them to tell the story from their perspective. They recapped that he didn’t want the dialogue to always come through him, and his tone. They alluded to certain scenes where Burnham would toss out a topic and let the performers converse naturally to get a more realistic appeal to the scenes.

They also spoke more in-depth about how he wanted to have the interactions between their two characters specifically to be more improvised at times. Which I felt resulted in many natural jitters, and gestures, that truly captured the genuine awkwardness you would expect between two kids of their age. The more they spoke on the process of shooting this film, the more it solidified why their characters were so easy to connect with.

Because they weren’t necessarily characters during every scene, and rarely did it feel like they were delivering lines of dialogue as much as it felt like normal kids interacting. This focus on wanting the characters, and the script to feel natural, are what make this such an intimate film that will grab your attention and sweep you into the heart of the main character.

It doesn’t amplify moments for the sake of cinematic story-telling, and it doesn’t stray into melodramatic’s when it easily could have. It was very comical at times, but never did it force the laughs. The script didn’t try to land jokes, the humor was effectively delivered through many organic situations we have all experienced in one way or another in our own lives which is why they are comical. There isn’t a studio vibe either, the framing of shots and lighting are all very simplistic and it complements the story-line perfectly. It makes to make you as the viewer feel like you are looking in on someone’s life and watching it evolve, more so than it feels like performers filling out characters.

The relationship dynamics are grounded, they’re sincere, and the result is subtle but heartfelt, and emotionally engaging. The main character is simple. She’s a normal kid. Most of us had shades of Kayla’s personality when we were her age, and that is what makes watching her path through this film so uplifting. It utilizes a vibrant musical score to add another fun element to the story telling, and my only minor nitpick about the film was that I wanted a little more. A little more between the characters of Kayla and Olivia, and possibly a little more backdrop to Kayla’s family life. But otherwise this was a well-crafted film with charming performances, and it’s certainly worth checking out.

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