Review: Eighth Grade (2019) – Looking For Life In All The Wrong Places

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Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton in Eighth Grade

It’s funny how much we are shaped by a fraction of our lives. Our formative teenage years to some extent mould who you are as a person. First time director Bo Burnham has crafted a film that speaks to how technology has affected the way people have grown and learnt who they are. Eighth Grade serves as both a subtle warning and a very real discussion of the universal aspects of growing up, the elements we can all sympathise and relate to.

Following a week in the life of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a shy but adventurous teenager who is about to graduate middle school and leave eighth grade for the unknown quantity that is high school. However behind this outgoing young girl is another story entirely and despite the openness in her online videos, her willingness to help others, she might just need a little bit herself.

While Kayla is written as an insular person, one who in public is tight-lipped and guarded, Burnham breaks her down using the look of his film. His eye for detail, be that of the films colour palette, the use of light and dark or the empty spaces in a shot, add to the feeling of Kayla’s world. It is one full of deep sadness, undying hope and festering anger but all of this is conveyed non verbally as Kayla puts up a wall of feigned joy thanks to a wonderfully layered script.

Burnham spaces out his film with segments where Kayla records herself for her Youtube channel giving advice to others. Each video she is surrounded by light yet outside of this she is surrounded by darkness. It is a perfect juxtaposition that says more about her state of mind than a soliloquy could. However many of Burham’s shots have double meanings with Kayla representing the idea of a fascinating person going overlooked in an oversaturated world. A light impossible to notice in a dark world full of memes, Facebook and Instagram.

This film isn’t about the dangers of growing up in the internet age although Kayla’s story is not without a nod to the dehumanising effect of technology. Burnham has written a story about learning. Learning who you are, what you have to say and who deserves your time. He uses this moment of change, the buildup to Kayla’s graduation, to signify the swirl of change, indecision and unrealistic expectations we all feel moving on to something new.

While moments of exaggeration often play as too much, some over the top satire in a story that doesn’t need it, it also plays into the imagination of a generation. A youth who want more from the life they are living. Consumed by the banality of education, the impatience to start living and a world opening up to them but far too slowly. Fisher taps into this idea with a performance that understands the duality of what we do and how we convey it. Not everything needs to be an exciting story but we have all fallen foul to making mountains out of molehills for dramatic effect.

Eighth Grade is elevated by a central performance that is nuanced and full of little eccentricities, the kind of small ticks that say everything about us without ever knowing we do it. After 90 minutes you might just see someone you recognise, or at least an element. However, as a person in Fisher’s hands, Kayla is fiercely bold yet protective, full of inadequacies yet courageous enough to break through them. She is easy to empathise with but Burnham doesn’t seek pity for her, instead, he wants us to envy her.

Fisher and Burnham see Kayla as a figure of immense power and despite the quiet contemplative nature of the character, she is. It all amounts to a film full of awkwardness, the stumbling steps we all recognise. However, this is a wickedly funny story, one that houses some painfully sad moments of realisation but a hopeful optimism that one-day things will be better. Accompany it with a playful but authentic soundtrack that nudges you instead of manipulating and you have a film that proves more than just a great debut.

This might just be a classic down the road, one for people going through exactly what Kayla is right now.

TSR

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