Movie Review – Eighth Grade
Writer-director Bo Burnham’s debut feature centers on a middle school girl and her single father. However, Burnham confuses with how he renders the father. It might seem insignificant, given the film is mostly about the girl and in fact told strictly from the girl’s point-of-view, but her relationship with her father is important and is the only vital relationship here. Yet, a monologue Burnham gives the father at the end throws the character into question and doubt.
Josh Hamilton (13 Reasons Why and Gracepoint) co-stars as Mark Day, a single father whose job or life outside being a dad is never developed, which is normal for teen comedies. It’s merely indicated that he’s been a single dad pretty much since his daughter’s birth. Her mother didn’t die. She simply left Mark to raise their daughter alone. By most metrics, he seems to be doing well. He cooks dinner and has it on the table every night. He does the cleaning. He drives his daughter to school or anywhere. He even checks in on her every night before going to bed.
He comes across as a really, good dad. Yet, he looks his daughter in the eye and delivers a monologue at the end that felt antithetical to his good parenting. In terms of who she is, he tells her she did it on her own and he just watched. His monologue is meant to boost her confidence, but it makes it sound like he wasn’t as active in her rearing as it initially appeared. He also says something else contradictory. He says he’s not scared for his daughter, but, earlier in the movie, he follows her and practically spies on her. If he’s not scared, then why follow her?
The relationship between a father and daughter, especially one where the mother is absent for whatever reason can be complicated. As a father, a single father, Mark is always going to worry, even as he gives her space to be and do whatever she wants. I suppose he wants to be modest, but that monologue completely undervalues his role in her life, but I’m not sure if this monologue is supposed to be a truly confessional moment for Mark, or if it’s him being really humble, and perhaps unnecessarily so.
Elsie Fisher (McFarland, USA and Despicable Me) stars as Kayla Day, a white girl in middle school who is about to graduate and go to high school. She apparently has a YouTube channel where she posts videos of herself talking directly to camera like so many other YouTubers. She’s also constantly on social media, posting staged and filtered photos of herself on Instagram. Apparently, that’s all Burnham thinks of middle school kids these days is that they’re constantly on their smartphones and social media, often oblivious to what’s happening around them, sometimes to what’s right in front of them.
Burnham doesn’t seem to think this obliviousness has any effect on the academics of these kids. The movie ends with everyone graduating, so that’s apparently not an issue. The obliviousness is more affecting of how teens socialize or the lack thereof, but not really. There is an implication of social media affecting young people in a particular way, but Burnham abandons that implication, probably for good reason, but could have worked around it.
If you take away that implication, there isn’t much new to this movie that isn’t new or earth-shattering. There haven’t been many films specifically about a girl in middle school, which simply follows her experiences therein. There are some shows on the Disney channel about girls in middle school, such as Girl Meets World. There are tons of films about boys in middle school but girls in that age range have limited representations. The only ones that come to mind are Girl Flu (2018), which didn’t really get a theatrical release, and Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996), which was another independent film that’s now mostly overlooked.
There have been films about teen girls in high school. There haven’t been as many as there have been about boys in high school, but there have been a good amount. If you compare Burnham’s film to some recent examples like Lady Bird (2017) or The Edge of Seventeen (2016), you’ll find a lot of similarities, making things here somewhat predictable. A generous interpretation would grant an authenticity in those similarities, as we revel in a type of realness regarding girls or young women in these coming-of-age stories. A less generous interpretation would shrug at the banality.
It’s been done a million times. A shy or awkward girl struggles to make friends or talk to people at parties. She has a crush on a boy who is pretty or a jock and who is either too aloof or athletic to give her the time of day. She pines after him, meanwhile the dorky or nerdy guy who is sweet and attentive passes her by. She chases the pretty boy until finally landing on the dork.
What makes this formula compelling is either the film having strong comedy bits or a strong comedic performance. There aren’t that many comedic bits here. There’s only one that stands out, which involves Kayla having to Google something leading to a moment with a banana that reached almost American Pie (1999) levels. The movie does have a strong comedic performance from Fisher as a girl who can be talkative and direct when it comes to the camera on her laptop but who is awkward, quiet and shy in social situations. Fisher also is great dramatically in what are tense situations as well.
One of those tense situations is a sexual situation. From the beginning, Burnham introduces sex as an undercurrent here. Kayla has a sex-education class early in the film. Kayla also has lustful eyes for the boy voted with the best eyes named Aiden, played by Luke Prael. A questionable moment is a scene of Aiden at a pool party where he’s put into slow-motion and treated with an actual, lustful gaze. It’s rare for a mainstream film or any to deal with childhood sexuality or sexuality before age 15. This movie floats that concept but never pulls the trigger.
Kayla is told that Aiden gets sexually explicit or nude photos on his phone. Later, Kayla hangs out with older kids who point out that social media in terms of their sexualization has wired differently the kids who grew up with it. Yet, it’s just a dropped line. It’s never really explored. Maybe, that’s Burnham’s way of dismissing that idea as untrue. Maybe, it’s just untrue for Kayla. The idea of sexual attraction is in her head but when presented with the reality of actually doing it with a slightly older boy named Riley, played by Daniel Zolghadri (Alex Strangelove), it turns out she’s not into it, or as she says she’s not ready for it. Whether that’s indicative of girls in her grade, who knows?
Shout out to Jake Ryan (Moonrise Kingdom) who plays Gabe and who is this movie’s very welcome, comic relief.
Rated R for language and some sexual material.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 34 mins.