Once in a generation a movie comes around that defines that era’s youth in such a way that it becomes more than just a timely cinematic feature, it becomes a time capsule of personality, pop culture and values for those ten, twenty, thirty, fifty years down the road to enjoy. For the current generation, those known as Generation Z, it appears we have found that film. Much like “The Breakfast Club” helped define the youth of the 80s and “Boyhood” focused on growing up in the 2000s “Eighth Grade” could go down in history as the ultimate defining picture for the new generation growing up in the 2010s. Written and directed by one of my all-time favorite comedians Bo Burnham “Eighth Grade” was a must see for me and a film I had very high expectations for. So naturally I went out to see it upon its wide release (as the only guy in a theater filled with tweens I might add…awkward) to see if this movie is truly up to snuff. So is “Eighth Grade” the masterpiece many have made it out to be? Let’s dive in. This is my review of “Eighth Grade”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Eighth Grade” stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day a shy young teen entering her final week of eighth grade. Kayla suffers from issues with her self-esteem and image and is often overlooked by her peers winning the Most Quiet superlative for her class. She also posts advice on a seldom-viewed YouTube channel to inspire confidence and self-respect however she has a hard time following her own tips drawing her commentary from those more confident than herself that she views around her. Kayla is also a social media addict, a dependence her single father Mark (Josh Hamilton) tries to break her of as he attempts to maintain a bond with her. Throughout her final week of middle school Kayla experiences many different things including her first feelings of infatuation, a birthday party where she is a pity invite, and even earning a friend in a high school senior she shadows in preparation for her freshman year. All this culminates in moments of revelation for Kayla who is forced to confront her insecurities, who she wants to be and what she wants from her future head on.
So I’m not going to sugarcoat it. “Eighth Grade” is every bit as good as I hoped and expected it to be. Being a millennial I really didn’t have any specific movie that attempted to capture how I grew up in the 90s. However I am a huge fan of “The Breakfast Club” and “Boyhood” and what they meant to the generations that inspired them. The same goes for “Eighth Grade” which acts as an insightful look into how the current generation is growing up. Bo Burnham, himself a millennial, somehow manages to capture all the nuances and unique aspects of a generation he has never lived in with an incredible script and screenplay that is never boring, cliché or trite. He shows incredible knowledge of how Generation Z works and trys to mimic these fads and cultural cliches without working too hard to draw attention to them. They feel organic to the film which is always a good start. “Eighth Grade” is a perpetually interesting look at today’s youth, especially the insecurities and struggles of a young teenager in modern times, fearlessly capturing everything that will, and so far has, defined generation Z in an hour and a half.
A big part of the movie’s success is Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day. There are other actors and actresses in this film but the focus is purely on this young actress who is part of every scene and drives nearly every moment of the project. Fisher is absolutely fantastic here likely due to her understanding of the struggle of the final middle school grade year. She’s only 15 in real life, one year older than the average eighth grader in the United States, and it’s truly believable that the struggles her character deals with in the film are her own. Fisher carries Kayla through an anxiety attack, her first crush, the awkward embarrassment that comes with bonding with a parent, and the realization that she may not be qualified to give the life advice she herself has yet to perfect as she tries to become YouTube relevant and that’s only the most basic life lessons she learns on the surface. Kayla Day is one of the most human and real characters to hit the big screen in 2018. While similar products of past generations had larger casts to drive home the group mentality and differences in views among multiple people “Eighth Grade” is squarely focused on one girl whose life is not perfect, her image is not what our culture would call “beautiful”, and her personality is genuinely flawed as a product of her time. This one-dimensional look at Generation Z is very appropriate because a lot of the criticism toward this generation is that they are so focused on being like everyone else the things that make them special as individuals have been watered down. This mentality is conveyed perfectly from the first frame until the last as Kayla Day tries to fit in and be as attractive as her friends but hits roadblocks at every turn despite encouragement from those around her. Fisher’s performance as Day is one of those that will live on long after the box office closes on this film as one of the most defining of her generation. It’s just an extremely fantastic and engaging approach to the character that draws you in and actually makes you feel like you’re getting a sneak peek into a life you should not be privy to.
As someone who finds ageism and generational judgement some of the most annoying stuff on the planet Earth, I was also tremendously entertained and impressed by the amount of detail Bo Burnham put into this movie. I mean he made a legitimate and effective effort to fully capture the generation of today and the inability of the elder generations to relate to them from the overdependence on social media and smart phones to the out-of-touch elders doing dabs to try and be cool and, especially, how the use of smart devices has changed the way that today’s youth explore their sexuality. But, it doesn’t just stop there. “Eighth Grade” also digs into how the world really hasn’t changed over the years as well. There are still cliques in school, people are still judged by how they look and act without context, and even the parental relationship between Kayla and her father is reminiscent of the awkward parent-child dynamic that permeates literally every coming of age story. But these aspects don’t feel cliché or worn out in a sea of originality. Rather they complement the unique story and add to Kayla’s growth in a subtle way to tell the world that while each generation grows up differently there are basic lessons we all have to learn eventually either the easy way or the hard way.
“Eighth Grade” also avoids taking the easy way around issues, well for the most part. In serving as a snapshot of a generation “Eighth Grade” goes to some very dark places including depicting a school shooting drill, Kayla’s researching of how to perform certain sexual acts, and even the idea of rape and sexual harassment which are all relevant and very real issues of modern society and Generation Z specifically meant to make the viewer uncomfortable in all the right ways. It also depicts the growing distance between Kayla and her father which isn’t due to any family loss, but more due to her obsession with being a part of a social media world that is not true reality and has warped Kayla’s idea of what it means to be an acceptable person both physically and mentally. There’s so much social commentary worked into the narrative and yet none of it feels forced, pandering, pretentious or over-the-top. Displaying these events and life lessons through a believable and well developed eighth grade girl allows these messages to resonate on a more personal level. In the same way a documentary might tackle a specific theme “Eighth Grade” tackles many but doesn’t beat us over the head with exposition and philosophy. Burnham allows his movie to simply be as real as possible in an attempt to capture the culture of a growing youth without demonizing it or glorifying it. I found myself comparing my youth to Kayla’s. Personally I think in some ways Kayla’s experiences are better than mine, but in other ways some of what she deals with scares me and had me thankful I didn’t grow up in her time. I think in the end that was the ultimate point Burnham wanted to make with “Eighth Grade”. You can either learn from it or take it as a representation of the struggles of its titular grade. It offers a bit of substance for literally anyone to behold. Almost anyone can relate to it in some way.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
I didn’t really have many problems at all with “Eighth Grade”. I loved the script and cinematography. I loved the little details worked in for spice, its social commentary, and its lead actress who dominates the screen every second. The only place where it was a little off for me was the final climactic interaction between Kayla and her father, played by Josh Hamilton. The two sit around a campfire and some revelations come to light and while I give the movie credit for still remaining controlled and grounded in its portrayal of an important moment in a young teens life I just felt of all the scenes in this movie this was the one that was a little cliché and overdone.
This is a great scene to be sure but it’s one laced with relatively generic writing compared to the rest of the project that sets up a conversations we’ve heard so many times before in these kinds of films. Whereas the rest of this movie felt truly original and insightful for me, this one scene contrasts with everything else as a moment where Bo Burnham settled for a proven formula rather than giving it his own special spin. The sentiment behind the moment works, and the resulting emotional response from Kayla works, but this whole scene just seems a bit too derivative. Even then though it’s a great moment and one that adds to the heart of the film while giving us, and Kayla, some great closure. Even at its worst “Eighth Grade” is miles above many of its contemporaries or predecessors. I just wish Burnham, a man who made a living lampooning the clichés of film, music and comedy in his on-stage acts, had been a bit more creative or subtle with this one scene. That’s it. That’s literally the only problem I had with the movie.
“Eighth Grade” is incredible, no way around it. It’s beautifully shot, beautifully written, impeccably directed and contains a charming performance by a promising lead actress who put her heart and soul into capturing the realities of her own generation on the big screen, both the good and the bad. Even putting my bias for Burnham aside I found “Eighth Grade” to be a mesmerizing movie that explores the world of today’s youth perfectly while never forgetting that some problems apply to every generation. I know this film is rated R, but if you have a daughter in middle school, entering middle school or even headed into high school PLEASE take them to see this movie. As a lighthearted but insightful dramedy packed with social commentary and an effective representation of the modern reality of an eighth grader, this movie SHOULD go down in history as the first great film to tackle what it truly means to grow up as a member of Generation Z in the 2010s. Simply put, “Eighth Grade” is nothing short of a masterpiece that I predict will stand the test of time and only become more relevant as the members of the generation that inspired it grow into their own.