A generational shift is palpable in Writer / Director Bo Burnham's burning comic drama Eighth Grade. The movie could have been a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age teen flick, but since it's so delicately layered by Burnham, his crew, and the enigmatic cast, Eighth Grade becomes an artistic testimony of the friction between hoping for things to get better with time and the apprehension of how time can change ourselves, our society and the way we communicate with one another.
Anxious thirteen year-old Kayla (an extraordinary Elsie Fisher) opens the picture with one of her YouTube tutorials. The meagerly viewed videos are her attempt to talk to the world at large and also to herself--it's a key to her survival. Burnham's conceit of blended recorded imagery (through phones and laptops---the outmoded TV only figures in a pool party karaoke scene and a sexual health class), effectively continues throughout as we are besieged by Kayla's visual universe: a mix of bland, darkly-lit middle school suburbia and shiny internet ephemera (distinctively captured by cinematographer Andrew Wehde). Vivid close-ups and jagged dialogue are defining elements of Eighth Grade. It's a film that blesses awkwardness but I couldn't find any missteps in it as a film itself. Its intimacy and realism paired with a joyful, brassy electronic soundtrack (an excellent score by Anna Meredith and an unnervingly apt use of Enya's "Orinoco Flow") are a compelling mix.
I was taken aback in particular by Josh Hamilton's performance of the father. Throughout, we see and know little of his character, as much as Kayla wishes to see and know of him. I braced myself for an ultimate scene of exorcising the past. It seemed like the film was riskily heading toward a "big moment" that could have sunk it. But a final monologue is brought on with such deft control and quietness by Hamilton that it left me reeling. Fisher's beautiful characterizations, built throughout the picture, added to the emotional gut-punch as well. Luckily the moment is paired with a hilariously-played coda which, like many of the juxtapositions in the film, jump off one another brilliantly and movingly. ****
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