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Off The Shelf: Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth Grade (2018)

     Eighth Grade is a film that struck hot with critics at Sundance this year. It had already been on my watchlist just considering I really admire Bo Burnham and was eager to see his directorial debut.

     Eighth Grade, for those who don’t know, is a movie that explores an introverted teen, Kayla played by Elsie Fisher, in her last week of middle school as she navigates the harsh realities of modern day life. Burnham’s unique voice for comedy really shines through in his screenwriting, perhaps unsurprisingly. This is a film that puts awkward teen phases under a microscope while also adding welcome commentary on the subtext of obsession with social media and how it allows us to hide from real life’s insecurities. Of course, you may be thinking, “that’s been done before,” and you’re right. But this film makes a unique and wise choice to A) show it through the lens of an eighth grader and B) allowing it to also show the benefits of that lifestyle in the way that it gives Kayla confidence and gives her a voice to try to help others like her. The complexity demonstrated in the subtext shows Burnham to be a powerful screenwriter, but what makes him a master is the way he builds the film to subvert your expectations. Naturally, there is a lot of cringe worthy, awkward dialogue reminiscent of The Office, where Kayla interacts in ways that will make you laugh while hiding your face in your hands. What I didn’t anticipate was how quickly Burnham could strip that all away and show me the dramatic insecurity lying beneath the surface, and how easily it could all be exploited. I don’t want to get into spoilers in these reviews unless it is absolutely necessary, so as vague as I can be, this film has a rather dramatic shift, and it’s not brought about in the way you might expect. No one dies. No car accidents, or cancer diagnoses. It all stays on the track of watching this teenager try to discover herself, and it hits just as hard, if not harder, than those other things I mentioned. This movie gave me a rare feeling that I relish in good film: I watched this whole theatre get hoodwinked, along with myself, into believing that this movie would simply make us laugh. The collective moments we shared not breathing during a scene in a car, and sniffling to try to mask tears in a scene by a camp fire are the reasons why I go to the movies. The shocking aspect to all of this is that Burnham has done this to me before with his last special, Make Happy (a required viewing of any comedy fan, in my opinion). To warn you in advance that this film will flip the switch on you almost does it a disservice, but I feel it necessary to add in order properly explain how engrossed I was by this movie. The film plays like a love letter to Generation Z in many ways. And while I do not identify with the generation in question, I still found myself feeling nostalgic about the various situations Kayla finds herself in. Assemblies, pool parties, mall hang outs, etc. It also features one of my favorite father/daughter relationships in all of film. The crux of the film lies on the shoulders of these two capturing the audience’s heart, and with so many memorable moments between the two of them, I think they succeeded.

     In terms of flaws, this movie is tough to criticize. Burnham, being the comedian he is, does occasionally create plots as red herrings more for the sake of a joke than an actual plot point that will shape Kayla’s story. And I do think that, while I love the campfire scene very dearly, it is overwritten in a sense. Burnham shows surprising expertise in how he handles the camera, but the campfire scene is a moment of oversharing how a particular character feels when the same could’ve been said in fewer lines and more trust in the visuals. The only other qualm I’d add is there were perhaps one or two character decisions made by Kayla that felt unmotivated.

Overall, this film is deserving of high praise and worthy of a trip to the theatre.

Add it to your shelf. 9.3/10  

Off The Shelf

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