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Eighth Grade: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. This films never rises to the level of being worth the effort to go see it in the theatre, but if you stumble across it on Netflix or cable it is worth checking out.

Eighth Grade, written and directed by Bo Burnham, is the story of Kayla Day as she goes through the final weeks of eighth grade. The film stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla with supporting turns from Josh Hamilton and Emily Robinson.

Eighth Grade is an occasionally funny, often uncomfortable and unwittingly insightful film.

The highlight of the film is Elsie Fisher who does a tremendous job as Kayla, the early teen protagonist who must suffer the excruciating slings and arrows of adolescence in modern America.

Fisher's performance is so gloriously uncomfortable as to be remarkable. Fisher fearlessly embraces being the ugly duckling in a world of cool kids, no doubt mirroring her experience in Hollywood being a "normal" looking kid among the sea of model wannabes. And while the script often lets the film down, Fisher never does. Her performance is so honest and vulnerable as to make you squirm...and that is a compliment.

The rest of the cast are not so good. The other kids give rather one dimensional performances that are only further hampered by a thin script.

Josh Hamilton plays Kayla's dad Mark and ironically enough he misses the mark. I have always liked Hamilton as an actor, having seen him many moons ago at the Atlantic Theater Company in a production of Cider House Rules back when I studied there. I have always rooted for Hamilton to make it big and thought he had the potential to be a movie star. Sadly, it never happened for Hamilton, and after seeing his rather off kilter work in Eighth Grade I wonder if he hasn't simply lost his mojo. Hamilton seems entirely out of sync and rhythm in his scenes and it is pretty startling to witness. 

As for writer/director Bo Burnham, this is his first feature film and his inexperience shows. Burnham's script has moments of magic in it, but it is also very poorly compiled and extremely thin. Burnham seems more adept at writing skits than screenplays, as the movie feels more like a compilation of bits than a true, fully formed narrative.

Burnham as director also shows flashes of inspiration, but too often is scuttled by his own lack of artistic depth and vision. Maybe with a bit more seasoning Burnham can develop into a powerful storyteller, but for now he seems more adept in creating vignettes than vistas.

The one thing that really stood out to me regarding Eighth Grade is that it unintentionally and unwittingly (no doubt) highlights the current crisis of masculinity in America. I know, I know, you are wondering how can I see a movie about a adolescent girl and only come away with insights on masculinity...well...forgive me...I find my insights where I can.

In the film Eighth Grade, there are no real men. None. There are men, but they are all these rather feminized, weak kneed fools (Hamilton's father character or Kayla's dinner date), or are twisted and tortured versions of the American male like the sex-fueled perverts who inhabit her world.

I doubt Burnham did this intentionally because he himself has probably never known a real man, as they are an endangered species. But the world portrayed in Eighth Grade is an accurate one in that respect, and part of the reason it is such a repugnant, repulsive and frankly hopeless world is that there are no true men inhabiting it.

In many ways, Eighth Grade is a companion piece to Leave No Trace, as the female protagonist of that film, Tom, is older than Kayla is in Eighth Grade, and Tom's generation is saying goodbye to the last of the real men...and Kayla must now grow-up and inhabit that male-less world. Leave No Trace gives viewers the proper diagnosis of the disease infecting of American masculinity and Eighth Grade shows us the symptoms of that disease. And contrary to what many think, a world eradicated of real men, is not a safer world but a much more dangerous one, as Kayla could attest. Of course, the saddest part is that Kayla doesn't even know what her world lacks...she is only left to flounder with a void in her being that she cannot comprehend.

There is a scene in Eighth Grade where director Burnham slowly moves his camera in on the school band as they play an off-key and horrendous version of The Star Spangled Banner. This scene was the best thing about the movie because it accurately depicts how much trouble America is in. As Eighth Grade expertly shows us, the next generation of youth, who are all addicted to social media and who live on line or with their face in their phones, and who have no religion or philosophy beyond self-help platitudes and new age nonsense, are the future of America...to put it bluntly...we are fucked. When these sad and sorry sons of bitches come of age it isn't America's anthem that will be butchered beyond recognition, it will be America. If you can watch Eighth Grade and come away feeling anything other than an impending sense of doom...you are a better person than I.

In conclusion, I didn't like eighth grade when I went through it years ago, and I was less than thrilled about sitting through Eighth Grade now. While Elsie Fisher does a solid job in the lead role, the rest of the cast and film never quite measure up. While I didn't hate Eighth Grade, I certainly didn't love it either. If you come across it on cable or Netflix than I recommend you watch it, but I do not believe it is worth spending the time, money and energy to go see it in the theatre. That said, your mileage may vary, as this film might resonate more with women/girls or parents of girls who might be able to relate more to the social struggles of Kayla...but for cinephiles of any gender, Eighth Grade leaves you unsatisfied.

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