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The coming of age movie isn't a new or fresh genre by any means, but as any talented storyteller will tell you, you can always give it a fresh coat of paint and approach it from a different angle. This is exactly what Bo Burnham does with his writing/directing debut, Eighth Grade, as he takes an all-too-familiar story and tells it with a fresh-eyed clarity so that it feels brand new all over again.
Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) has one week to go before she graduates from Middle School. Usually an introvert, Kayla embarks on various efforts to put herself out there, in order to fit in better with the world at large. In those experiences, she learns more about her surroundings, the future she's about to graduate into, and most importantly, who she's really become after two years of transitioning between elementary and high school.
Looking at Eighth Grade on its surface, you're probably convinced that you've seen this movie before. You're not wrong, as this is a tale of a young woman coming into her own through a crucial period of adolescence. What sets Bo Burnham's film apart from the rest of the genre's offerings is, quite frankly, its honest humanity. Eighth Grade tackles subject matter we've seen portrayed before, normally with exaggerated levels of humor and dramatics, and scaled them down to more believable proportions. What Kayla goes through in the course of the film's events is not only believable, it's universally relatable no matter who you are. A sequence showing her arriving at an end-of-year pool party is prime proof of that point, as you can feel the anxious energy of relatively unpopular Elsie navigating the crowd of selfie takers, practical jokers, and cool kids.
That's not to say drama and humor are totally absent from the film, but both are milled from the realistic moments that populate Eighth Grade's story. And it's all thanks to young Elsie Fisher, who commands the screen with her portrayal of the lovably awkward protagonist. For a little over an hour and a half, Kayla is our daughter / friend / little sister, as we watch her grow quite a bit in the span of a week. Watching all that she goes through, one can't help but want this young adult to make it to high school with the least bit of embarrassment, and it's because we can easily believe the somewhat mundane perils of trying to attract the opposite sex, or trying to avoid the annoyance of parents who mean well. As believable as the events of the film are, having Fisher anchoring a cast of authentic young performers unifies the entire film into a cohesive, realistic experience.
Eighth Grade has a sort of realistic, documentary vibe to it, as it's shot and portrayed in such a manner that isn't cloying for you to identify with it. Unlike Edge of Seventeen or Juno, it's not a protagonist that maps to a parade of quirks, and unlike Boyhood, there's no forced moments of emotion to steer you a certain way. It's a coming of age story, that just happens to be fluent in the technology of the times, while at the same time speaking the language of timeless youth culture. It never distracts with name drops of platforms like Snapchat, or the usage of Elsie's YouTube videos as a platform to craft her image. Rather, Eighth Grade enhances its message with such things.
Bo Burnham's career record has always shown a consistent message: he knows the pulse of digital media, and he isn't afraid to show both the good and the bad in the name of entertainment. Eighth Grade is a successful, and well crafted bridge between his career in comedy and that of a narrative driven film-maker. You may not recognize the faces in Eighth Grade, but you'll recognize the heartache, the awkwardness, and the tenderness it exudes in an expertly crafted manner. And just like the week that this film takes place over, that hour and a half in Kayla's world feels longer and richer than it seems. One could only hope that Burnham and Elsie Fisher will collaborate again in the future, as Kayla's story is far from over, and I'm dying to see what happens next.