By Gregg Shapiro
The world has changed quite a bit since John Hughes’ `80s portrayals of adolescent angst in movies such as “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club”. In the interim, we’ve seen the best and worst of that challenging phase of life represented in films such as “Thirteen”, “School of Rock”, “Heavenly Creatures”, “Boyhood”, “Lady Bird” and even Disney/Pixar’s “Inside Out”.
Comedian turned writer/director Bo Burnham’s feature film debut “Eighth Grade” (A24) is a welcome addition to the genre. Honest, sensitive, genuine and astute, Burnham never trivializes the subject matter, but he’s careful not to celebrate it too much either.
Socially awkward Kayla (Elsie Fisher) lives with her father Mark (Josh Hamilton). He’s a good dad, encouraging and concerned, with an affectionate sense of humor. Kayla is a solitary teen, occasionally sullen, whose entire world revolves around social media. In other words, online she can be whoever she wants to be.
For example, Kayla, who is experiencing her final days as a middle schooler, makes a series of videos on a variety of subjects of interest to those in her age group, such as “Being Yourself”. The thing is, Kayla herself is struggling with all of the issues she posts about with confidence. Painfully shy, Kayla is voted “Most Quiet” during a class superlatives assembly.
There is, however, a ray of light in Kayla’s world. With his bedroom eyes and pouty lips, Aiden (Luke Prael) is Kayla’s unrequited middle school crush. He barely knows she exists, although she does what she can to remind him, including flirting with him during a school-shooting preparedness drill.
But, sadly, there is more darkness than light. Popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) barely acknowledges Kayla’s existence, even after Kennedy’s mother insists Kayla attend her birthday/pool party. Following an eighth grade class visit to the high school she’ll attend in the fall, where she shadows sweet upper-class-person Olivia (Emily Robinson), Kayla is nearly sexually assaulted by high schooler Riley (Daniel Zolghadri).
Nevertheless, Kayla prevails, confronting her demons with a maturity and strength she was unaware she even possessed. An initially gawky introduction to Kennedy’s cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan) at the birthday party leads to a hilarious Chicken McNugget dinner date (complete with all of the dipping sauces) where they bond over “Rick and Morty” and their collective geekiness.
Also, it would be remiss not to mention Anna Meredith’s score for “Eighth Grade”, which is fantastic and effective.
All things considered, “Eighth Grade” makes the honor roll.
Rating: 4½ peaches