Empathy and excruciation are equal and abundant in Eighth Grade, potentially the most awkward, hilarious and realistic rendition of that tough time in life.
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As her final week at a New York middle school looms, eighth grade student Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) realises that she is practically invisible to her peers when she wins the “Most Quiet” award voted by her classmates. An aspiring YouTuber who posts motivational videos about confidence and self-worth, she decides it’s time to take a leaf out of her own book, put herself out there and make some friends before the year is up – which means facing the anxiety, sexual awakenings, awkwardness and embarrassments that come with being a teenager.
For a 28-year-old male stand-up comedian, Bo Burnham sure understands the mind of a shy, barely pubescent teenage girl. Eighth Grade is his writing and directing debut, and his inspiration – his own struggles with anxiety and panic attacks – are worn firmly on his sleeve, and gives birth to the notion that there is no year more crucial for forming self-awareness than the intersection of school and social life at that age.
Less plot-based and more like a live and incredibly detailed retelling of every young girl’s secret diary, it’s deeply rooted in a contemporary adolescent experience that can be terrifyingly confronting at times in that it revolves almost entirely around technology and social media. Kayla can barely spend a second without her nose buried in her phone, living her life vicariously through the Insta-famous and popular kids. Texting takes place during school-shooting drills and promises of nude photos are used to gain social traction. It really paints a picture of what growing up has become, now that it has been consumed by the virtual world.
Unlike the usual older, much too attractive actresses typically cast in these roles, Elsie Fisher is an actual, average teenage girl of the right age, which is why her performance is so revelatory and genuine. She’s brilliantly cringeworthy as she tries admirably to put herself out there and make friends, all while continuously embarrassing herself. Through her awkward journey of self-discovery she remains consistently optimistic no matter how often she’s knocked down, which earns her our sympathy the entire way.
Equally excellent is her ungainly single father Mark (Josh Hamilton), who struggles to connect with his daughter but is always so enthusiastic for her – to the point of stalking her at the mall just to see how well she’s doing making potential friends. He’s hilarious but also does a great deal of growing throughout, sharing some touching and profound scenes with Fisher.
Eighth Grade is a film that not just every eighth grader should see, it’s one that everyone should see. It’s perhaps the most intimate and integral coming-of-age film ever and speaks volumes about a point in life that everyone is all-too-familiar with. More so, it’s an experience that could be used as a communication tool; it gives a clear and firm understanding of what teenage life is like in modern times and underlines just what kids go through on a day-to-day basis where one’s private life is lived publicly online. Hilarious, insightful and full of heart, it’s essential viewing.
Eighth Grade is available in Australian cinemas from January 3
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures