The Movie Waffler Dublin International Film Festival 2019 Review - EIGHTH GRADE | The Movie Waffler

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Dublin International Film Festival 2019 Review - EIGHTH GRADE

eighth grade film review
The struggles of a socially awkward teen as she completes middle school.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Bo Burnham

Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri

eighth grade film poster





When stand-up comics transfer their acts to the big or small screen, they often tend to produce the sort of comedy that's become known as 'cringe comedy'. Comics like Larry David, Garry Shandling and Ricky Gervais have created screen avatars of themselves, often translating their own insecurities (there is nobody more insecure than a comedian) through an exaggerated version of their public or private personae. With his filmmaking debut, Eighth Grade, comic Bo Burnham has made the unique decision to have his anxieties represented not by a male in his late twenties, but by a 13-year-old girl.

eighth grade film review


Discovered on YouTube by Burnham, ingenue Elsie Fisher plays Kayla Day, an eighth grader whose motivational YouTube videos mask her deep social insecurities. The film plays out over the final weeks of Middle School, a transitional time for American teens as they prepare to enter High School after the summer.




When we meet Kayla, it appears that despite her upbeat demeanour, she has no real friends. While her classmates are given awards in such categories as "Most Athletic" and "Best Eyes," Kayla revives the dubious award of "Most Quiet." When Kayla is invited to a pool party by the mother of a snooty classmate who hasn't given her so much as the time of day, it sets off a chain of cringey vignettes which will have older viewers recalling their own school struggles, Kayla's contemporaries finding kinship in her turmoil, and parents asking their kids if they wish to talk about anything.

eighth grade film review


Occasionally veering into considerably dark terrain, Eighth Grade has much in common with Todd Solondz's similar 1995 debut Welcome to the Dollhouse. Yet though Fisher's Kayla shares much of the same indignities as Dawn Wiener, the heroine of WTTD, Burnham gives her a degree of agency Solondz didn't afford his young protagonist. After viewing WTTD, you come away fearing Dawn's nightmarish school years are merely the start of a life of agonising anxiety, whereas with Eighth Grade there's a sense of hope for Kayla, exemplified in the film's optimistic final moments.




Burnham no doubt chose a female Middle Schooler over her male counterpart because while schoolboys' fears haven't really evolved over the decades and are still largely about avoiding getting your head smashed into a locker, girls have always been subjected to a more psychological form of distress, one that's increasingly exacerbated by social media. In the past, a bullied or outcast girl would count down the hours to the school bell, whereas today their smartphone allows them to feel worthless 24/7. Burnham integrates the negative aspects of the internet into his comedy in a much more organic and less Luddite fashion than Jason Reitman's awful anti-web tract Men, Women & Children for example. Kayla spends much of her time torturing herself by scrolling through the Instagram feeds of her prettier, wealthier, more confident classmates, but at the same time the internet offers her a creative outlet through the videos she creates for YouTube, even if nobody is actually watching them.

eighth grade film review


Fisher is a real find, and her rawness sets her apart from the more conventionally trained young actors that surround her. Like every great comic performer, she can sell not just comedy but pathos, and though it takes a long time for Kayla's chipper facade to finally crack, Fisher lets us know from the off that we're watching someone suffering from serious social anxiety. The movie's warmest moments come courtesy of Kayla's father (Josh Hamilton), whose awkwardly intrusive but well meaning parenting initially threatens to repel his daughter until a late moment that will have you reaching for the Kleenex.

Eighth Grade opens with Kayla digging up a time capsule she buried upon entering Middle School, and ends with her similarly preparing one to be unearthed in four years' time upon completion of High School. Should Burnham pull a Linklater and give us a sequel four years from now, he may struggle to afford the services of Fisher, who is no doubt a star in the making.


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