IFFBoston Movie Review: ‘Eighth Grade’
Directed by: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton
Plot: A socially awkward girl tries to make friends before graduating middle school
Comedians find a lot of currency in being very self-aware about their struggles with social awkwardness and the possibility of loneliness that comes with it. They paint it as some sort of crucible where they hone their comedy skills or else suffer alone. This has shown up in autobiographical fiction as comedians struggling to make a name for themselves in New York, but that’s just a riff on Louie CK, which is already a riff on French New Wave. Bo Burnham takes it in a fresh direction by sympathizing with someone else’s story entirely.
That someone is a 13 year old girl named Kayla, played by a very promising up and comer, Elsie Fisher. She is quiet to a fault but desperately wants to share herself with the world. She obsesses over making the perfect social media post, trying to make a connection somewhere since back in the real world she has no one but her dad. And he is essentially a dad-joke if it was a person, equal parts cringey and likable. She does have things to say, and she does have interests worth discussing. However, she is imprisoned by her social awkwardness in what might be one of the most accurate portrayal of social anxiety on film.
Burnham accomplishes this by using horror movie tropes to rev up the sense of dread. He often shoots Fisher in close ups with frantic editing. Ambient noises and a horror-style score pulses and intensifies during very mundane scenes, like while Fisher, in a bathing suit, stands by a sliding glass door to a pool party. It doesn’t look ominous, but it feels like it.
Despite that, this is unmistakably a comedy. The comedy often sneaks up on you. The bulk of the movie is spent either with those horror movie inspired scenes or long moments of quiet reflection before a really well-timed punchline blows up. And since the comedy is just as connected to the collective social awkwardness as the tension, it seamlessly bounces back and forth never stomping on each other’s toes. It can have you laughing out loud one minute and skeeve you out the next.
With Eighth Grade, Burnham has created a very early coming-of-age tale (one that will have to come of age again down the line) that doesn’t rely on Burnham’s nostalgia of his own childhood pop culture. Instead, it goes for something much more universal: feelings that anyone of any age can gravitate toward.