With the end of the summer fast approaching it’s time for some smaller, quieter films to enter the fray. Even with Mission: Impossible – Fallout dominating the box office there is still room enough for Bo Burnham’s feature film directing debut to garner some attention. Burnham, who’s already well-known as a standup comedian, has written and directed an awkwardly beautiful film that shows a human side to teenagers. Most films normally uphold tropes and stereotypes in regards to teenagers, but amazingly Burnham perfectly encapsulates the struggles an eighth grade girl experiences when she’s not the popular one. In addition, Burnham found the perfect actress to put all of that on display. Eighth Grade, for all intents and purposes, is a delightful film that will resonate with all and hit close to home for many.

Burnham’s portrait of a girl’s last week in eighth grade before entering high school is spearheaded by Elsie Fisher. Fisher plays Kayla Day – quiet, reserved and awkward. She’s attached at the hip to her cell phone and social media, and she produces her own vlog, spouting advice to others on how to successfully maneuver through life’s maze. No one watches her videos, though, and she’s a forgotten person at school. Kayla has no friends and her biggest accomplishment is she was voted quietest student. It’s interesting to note how Kayla loves social media yet struggles to hold a simple face-to-face conversation with her peers

Kayla has no allusions about who she is, and her social shortcomings are put to task when she’s invited to a birthday party for Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), a popular classmate. Kayla was only invited because Kennedy’s mom made her, and despite the fact Kayla doesn’t want to go, her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), implores her to in order to get out there and make friends. Just showing up at the party results in Kayla having a panic attack, but somehow she musters enough strength to participate… somewhat.

Of course, Kayla wouldn’t be a typical middle schooler if she wasn’t crushing on someone. That someone is Aiden (Luke Prael), another popular kid. Kayla tries to win his affections but she goes about things the wrong way by saying yes to something without understanding what she agreed to. This turns into another awkward situation and Kayla is left mortified. These experiences are both funny and excruciating due to its relatability, and as Kayla’s week progresses she ends up in more embarrassing situations.

The most interesting aspect of Eighth Grade is Kayla’s relationship with her dad. Kayla and Mark are by themselves – the mom is gone, a subject briefly explained during the final act. With it just being the two of them, they have a contentious relationship, with the contention mainly coming from Kayla. But Kayla’s going through a lot - it’s understandable she’s standoffish towards her dad. What’s amazing is how much Mark cares for her – he stays calm and resolute, pays attention to Kayla and her likes and dislikes, and has a genuine admiration and love for her. In short, he loves her like a father should, and when they have a heart-to-heart things get emotional.

For his first time out Bo Burnham knocked this out of the park. He not only perfectly depicting how difficult growing up can be, he accurately displayed a teenage girl’s insecurities poignantly. He didn’t use any gimmicks and never went over the line – Burnham seemingly took a teen’s diary and put in onscreen. Burnham worked with relative unknowns and the final result is impressive - his directorial debut is solidified thanks to honest and memorable turns from Hamilton and Fisher. And without a doubt, Fisher is everything in Eighth Grade, to the point that I don’t believe anyone else could’ve done better.

Eighth Grade was a favorite last January at the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. I’m reminded of Boyhood as nothing ever goes too far despite being honest and sometimes agonizing. Burnham’s latest works as both an entertaining coming of age story and essential learning tool for parents with teenage daughters. Regardless, Eighth Grade is a must-see film that will allow viewers to breathe a sigh of relief knowing that puberty (and all its trials and tribulations) eventually ends.

4.5 stars out of 5


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