Today (8/6/18) there will be free screenings of this movie with no enforcement of ratings! Get your tweens and teens to see this Rated R movie.
This Wednesday night. No ratings enforced. If you’ve been through 8th grade, eighth grade is for you.
This is not just adult content. This is eighth grade.
I went into the film Eighth Grade knowing only the barest of plot points and the fact that its R rating has been the subject of some controversy. I left the movie loving it. It’s hard not to be jealous of 27-year-old Bo Burnham‘s feature writing and directorial debut. It’s engaging and smart and very often when it brings to mind other films, it’s only because it’s better and more effective than they are.
Eighth Grade is about Kayla Day (played by Elsie Fisher) as she approaches the end of her last year in middle school. While incredibly quiet in school, she posts a YouTube series offering advice for people her age on how to navigate life. There’s very little plot to speak of, but the film is still captivating. It will, no doubt, bring on comparisons to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. And while Boyhood was a masterpiece in direction, the film itself was less than the sum of its parts. Eighth Grade is a far superior movie. Though nearly a plot-less slice of life film, it keeps tension in its writing structure. Scenes are often constructed like stand-up jokes, not so much in direct humor, but in the fact that they establish a tension and then escalate it. Sometimes the tension is humor (it’s the first film I can remember in ages that actually made me laugh out loud), sometimes it’s cringe-inducting suspense, and sometimes it’s a slowly growing sense of horror.
In fact, the direction feels exactly like that of actual horror film (dare I say masterpiece) It Follows. The slow pull-outs and zoom-ins, the extended holds, the emotive close-ups, and careful reveal of the scenes with mostly stationary camera work. It took me a moment to realize why this was done until I realized it was filmed like a horror movie. The direction ensures that there’s tension in every shot so that even when the scenes seem to meander there’s still an emotional push that prevents it from becoming dull or uninteresting. It’s a move that could have been disjointed and alienating but it’s used to perfect effect.
The music editing is likewise done with a deft touch. There are uses of silence and hard audio edits makes things feel heightened. When dealing with teenagers, this is exactly how music should work, and it does a great deal to draw the audience into Kayla’s perspective. A crowded party can be silent because in the midst of all the clamor, she’s alone. Blasting music during a dinner scene can be the respite from conversation she wants, and is yet another way the movies construction serves the characters and storytelling.
It would be criminal not to draw attention the cast. The middle-schoolers and high schoolers are (wait for it) all age appropriate actors! This is something rarely done when dealing with school age children, and to be honest, even with adults. When Kayla’s class takes a trip to the high school, the cast we’ve been watching and grown used to suddenly seem tiny. There are scenes that, had the cast been aged up, would never have worked. The mooning over Aiden (Luke Prael) would have seemed like service for the audience rather than Kayla obsessing over a somewhat gangly 13-year-old with good hair and promising bone structure. Similarly, there’s a scene with Kayla and a banana that would have been the subject of many a think piece trying to judge its appropriateness. But with an age appropriate cast the scene is able to transition from awkward to cringe-inducing to slapstick. And speaking of Kayla, Elsie Fisher is great. She’s probably most known as Agnes from the Despicable Me films, which I have never seen. In this she is great. She was such a handle on the character that there are moments when she’s searching for words and it’s so frustrating, but that’s because Kayla is young and not a great public speaker. The character is quiet in turns, sometimes due to an inability to clearly organize her thoughts and sometimes because she just doesn’t want to engage. Fisher manage to always convey her underlying motivations so Kayla never comes off as dumb or lazy or arbitrarily malcontent.
Another astute touch is how technology is regarded in the story. The specifics are integral to the movie, but social media is never vilified or lionized. It’s probably one of the best portrayals of social media’s role in contemporary life that has been set to screen. There are moments when Kayla wraps herself within her phone, like at dinner with her father. But ignoring parents during meals is hardly a new trend. There are also times when it provides her with comfort to see other people while physically alone, but isn’t shows as a cure-all for isolation. The narrative framing itself, of her YouTube series offering advice, is not clear gateway to success nor an outright failure. It’s a possible method for self-analysis and growth, but only one possible method. Technology is shown to be a tool, albeit one that is permanently woven into the daily lives of everyone. And tools can be used in both constructive and destructive ways. And it’s refreshing to see it treated as such, rather than the focus of a modern morality play.
I highly recommend this movie. If you’re a parent of a young teenager, I highly recommend ignoring the R rating and taking them, or letting them go themselves. This movie has an earnest realism to it. It’s not glamorized or sensationalized. It’s a finely crafted story that’s absolutely worth seeing.