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Film Reviews Review: Eighth Grade is a tenderly made first feature by Bo Burnham

Elsie Fisher stars as Kayla Day in Eighth Grade.

Linda Kallerus/Elevation Pictures

  • Eighth Grade
  • Written and directed by: Bo Burnham
  • Starring: Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton
  • Classification: 14A; 94 minutes

rating

In Allan Moyle’s 1990 film, Pump Up the Volume, a new-town, shy teenager, played by Christian Slater, anonymously operates a pirate radio station out of his parents' basement. His extroverted on-air personality becomes a secret alter ego of his more bookish public self, and the airwaves serve as an outlet for his frustrations, humour, social commentary and an alarming enthusiasm for morose Canadian – Cowboy Junkies and Leonard Cohen – music.

To young viewers of the fanciful film, the romance of being a stealth nighttime DJ would have been off the charts at the turn of nineties. Pretty far-fetched, mind you, but a charming daydream fantasy for those in their pimple years.

Now, in 2018? YouTube is a licence to broadcast – live, worldwide and basically free. With a webcam and a modem, an audience is a mouse-click away.

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Which brings us to writer-director Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, one of the more thoughtful, honest and likable teenage films of recent years. Its lead character is Kayla Day, a painfully introverted middle-schooler who gives perky online tutorials. There’s no sense that anybody watches them – they’re really just motivational diaries directed at herself, which, in a preinternet world, would be (Moyle movies aside) scribbled into notebooks. (Kayla does that, too – don’t slouch, make friends, find a best friend – and also fills copious wall space with Post-it Note pep talks.)

Watching Kayla navigate her last days of Grade 8 is sobering, charming and sometimes heartbreaking. With his tenderly done first feature, the former stand-up comedian Burnham captures early-adolescent awkwardness with an empathetic and feather-light comic touch, acne and all.

Eighth Grade is not a film specifically for girls nor even for teens. Neither is it a comment on millennials or Mean Girls bullying. At one point, Kayla expresses her daily anxiety as the jittery feeling one gets before a roller-coaster ride. Worse, she never gets the thrills and the post-ride payoff – just the butterflies. That’s not a kid thing, but a human frailty thing – and, in the hands of Burnham, a sincerely presented thing.

As much as Burnham can be applauded, it’s impossible not to clap even harder for the pitch-perfect acting of newcomer Elsie Fisher, a marvel in the lead role of an apparently unremarkable 13-year-old. No gears seem to be grinding in Fisher’s head as her character silently suffers small indignities. Only a confident actor could play meek so assuredly; only someone self-assured could so believably play someone who is not that at all.

Fisher’s Kayla cringes when her peers vote her the quietest student. Viewers will cringe when Kayla demeans herself to earn the favour of the hunky boy she’s crushing on. And when she cries after a creepy back-seat game of truth or dare with an older boy, the eyes of some viewers will well up in sympathy.

Other than showing a boy sniffing a marker in class, Burnham doesn’t play on nostalgia. Smart move – who wants to repeat eighth grade? Not Kayla, that’s for sure. Looming high school is a chance for her to start over and to be the star she thought she’d already be by now.

Laughs? A banana is to Eighth Grade what a warm pastry is to American Pie. And apologies to Eugene Levy, but the award for best supporting actor in the role of an adorably well-meaning father goes to the superb Josh Hamilton.

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Hamilton’s dad character is a single parent struggling to preserve his connection with an only child who is in an awful hurry to grow up. He’d like to talk to her at the dinner table, if only she’d remove her earbuds. Later, Kayla is emotionally untethered when she fears her smartphone is ruined. That she cuts her finger on the broken screen may or may not be a metaphor for the dangers of Snapchat and the like. Burnham, a YouTube personality in his own youth, has said he isn’t seeking to vilify the internet, but to have an honest discussion about it.

And how best to have that conversation? By turning down the volume.

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