Eighth Grade (Movie Review)
--- 10/10 - Masterpiece -
Eighth Grade is a masterful piece of art. There are few films that dig into my heart like this did. I have so much to say. So, get comfortable it’s going to be a long review.
Let me start with the performances, as this film would’ve ruptured at the seams without the breakout star. Elsie Fisher carries this entire film. Her understated shyness was pitch perfect. You can see the panic in her eyes. You can feel the spiraling anxiety overcome her. She makes ‘Kayla’ breath, sweat, and gasp in such a real and human way. She grabs the spotlight and lets you inside her character's vulnerabilities. She never shows any sign of struggle during her performance. It is one of the most confident and consistent acts I have seen in a film this year. Her youth only capitalizes on her skill and presence. Her shy performance truly excels because every second of her on screen is filled with her fumbling and wishing to talk. Whether it’s a light tremble of her lips, a dazed glare, a motionless hesitation, or even an incomprehensible 'wuh'. She performs shyness to a tee. The character is defined by a desire to be heard and Elsie Fisher brings that to life. Give this girl her Oscar.
The rest of the cast does well. Her father has some fine scenes of awkwardness, annoyance, and love. Another fantastically muted performance was by a boy named ‘Gabe’ performed by Jack Ryan. Ryan and Fisher share a scene that re-defines awkwardness. I dare not spoil it, but I nearly cried laughing because of it. That young boy also taps into something honest and human with his performance.
Let us move on to another point of excellence. The films score by the sublime, Anna Meredith. It is one of the greatest musical enhancements I have heard in film thus far. The pulsing ferocity that it infuses in scenes of distress and panic. The pounding deepness it introduces during scenes of confusion and fear. The distortion of pitch and sound that zips in and out as the story pushes into unknown territory. The high-toned pixel flavored beeps that inspire courage and confidence during scenes of change, challenge and renewal. The score is fucking fascinating. Truly a monumental soundscape for a story so human, yet so digital. You can hear the music envelope the threads of the image, the themes and the meaning of this film all with a youthful digital spirit. My god, is there even enough ways for me to say that this score is the pulsing heart of this film? Listen to this soundtrack alone in a dark room and tell me you can’t feel the emotions creep into your soul. It is a wonderful piece of art.
I can already feel my stomach beginning to flutter with excitement about the next topics.
Let us talk about the Editing by Jennifer Lilly. The Cinematography by Andrew Wehde and of course the debut Direction by Bo Burnham.
How can a first-time film be so fucking pristine?
This film does what very, very few films manage to do. Infuse all three of those core elements into one cohesive tissue. They all operate with such a liquid like presence. The editing is one of the finest examples of the art form that I have ever seen. It cuts with a knife-like precision at times. Snapping you straight into the terror of a forced choice. At other times its slugs and fades drunkenly through a collection of frames and images. This technique bears more explanation. There is one sequence where ‘Kayla’ is simply passing time on her phone. A dry-cut scene we have all seen too many times in too many films. The way this sequence is shot, edited and directed is so masterful, yet simple, and realistic, but also dreamlike. I was left pressed on the edge of my seat in pure amazement by it. The passage of time in this sequence is blurred by the transitions that linger on and on shifting only as ‘Kayla’s’ attention is. It is A drug-like state of boredom and entertainment visualized on screen. A sensation that every person has experienced during our digital age. There’s even a lingering, faded image of ‘Kayla’s’ eyes on the sequence. Literally implying that we are seeing this entire moment through her eyes. A reflection of A black mirror, our phones. What a genius exercise in craft. I can’t even spit out all the thoughts and ideas coursing through my head about this and many other shots.
The color palette and imagery are altogether simple and clean. It has a soft fuzzy glow with the colors without being too digital. Wehde really nails what this film should look like. The work that he does managing the digital screens in darkness is great as well.
Let me dig a little deeper into the Direction by Burnham. His shot designs and compositions are immaculate. There is not a single frame wasted in this film, each frame feels predetermined. Burnham’s eye is just fascinating to see on screen. There is an experienced simplicity to it and a staggering amount of confidence and purpose. Every shot with ‘Kayla’ in her bedroom feels different and purposeful. Burnham deploys a lot of techniques in this film. He especially uses many, many tracking shots. We constantly follow ‘Kayla’ into the depths of anxiety and uncomfortableness. Each of these tracking shots has a great execution behind them, never becoming to shaky. Burnham also avoids the most common mistake that plague most first-time filmmakers work, too many close-ups. He uses them only strategically. His eye tends to be wide and there’s a lot of breathing space because of it. It really allowed me to be close enough to ‘Kayla’ but never suffocated by her. The compositions gave a fantastic amount of depth into the landscape of the film. The best thing about Burnham's visualization of his script is how every image in the film supports the themes, character, and story. That is when you know you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. It is such a marvel to watch a film and not be able to think about how I’d shoot it differently, or how I’d change an angle or sequence. I can’t have those thoughts when the imagery is so purely entangled with the purpose and intent of the film. Burnham seems to be one of the few directors that tackles every shot with a sense of challenge. How do I make this scene tell the story better?
One key shot I’d like to mention specifically is a simple one. ‘Kayla’ calls a new friend she has made. She’s nervous and paces back and forth anxiously. Simple right? Well, Burnham takes this very simple scene and decides to infuse the image with the emotion of the character. Instead of cutting close-ups or shooting a wide shot. We get a medium shot, on a tripod, that pans lefts and right tracking her as she paces back and forth. There’s a blown-out window behind her that becomes a disorienting light source that she blocks and reveals as she paces. The image even has this hazy blur as it keeps up with her trepidation of what to say. After a few seconds of watching this scene, I felt dizzy and uncomfortable. The scene continues as we hear her talk, she’s uncomfortable and anxious. Only when the scene ends do I realize the beauty of the shot. Burnham made me feel her anxiety, dizziness, and confusion not only emotionally and mentally through the dialogue and performance, but physically as well through a disorienting moving image. A brilliant sequence defined by every element.
I haven’t even gotten to the core part of this film yet, the screenplay also by Burnham. This script is simply marvelous to me. He structures this entire film within the last days of Eighth Grade. He creates these simple yet creative emotional set pieces for the character to grow and learn. I won’t spoil the big moment’s that he uses but I love how he weaves these YouTube videos into the real-time action of her committing to what she’s saying, It's genius. It makes it all feel like a dreamy reality when they play out, or sometimes a nightmare. I love the dialogue that he wrote for her during these videos. They are written so realistically and with so much honesty it often feels like a confession from the character soul. It adds so much to her personality. The fact that she puts herself out there forcefully proves her strength, she in many ways defines ‘proactive’. There are some darker scenes in this film as well which I wasn’t expecting. One scene is written with such reality and creepiness that it was terrifying to even watch on screen. It was truly one of the most uncomfortable scenes I have ever seen in a film. I remember how tense I felt watching it play out and the dialogue that he created around it was unnerving. I love how every interaction feels real and lived through in this film. I love how every word said by every character feels so inherent to who they are. I love the sense of humor that this film has. I love how awkward so many situations end up. I love the stresses and challenges of constant renewal and progression that he writes into this film. I love the character ‘Kayla’. She is at times full of hope and courage and at others in despair and fear. Yet her core is that she is always challenging herself. Constantly she redefines who she is. Constantly she steps up to change. Her character is truly one of the most inspiring characters I have ever seen in a film. It is a testament to Burnham's craft as a writer.
There’s a whole other side of this film that I haven’t ventured into, which is how it affected me personally. I am 'Kayla', I struggle to this day to speak to people or even be around them. I constantly struggle with the desire to change and become what I want, yet I feel terrified and uncomfortable when I choose to act. I won’t dive in too deep into my personal life now as this review is already my longest. Let me just say that this film reflected so much of me that it almost felt like a personal letter written exclusively for me. It was truly a cathartic experience.
The final thing I want to add is how well Burnham weaves digital tech into this story. He plays and talks about trends, memes and jokes in a way that I believe will be timeless. In the years to come people will see this film not as outdated, but as a time stamp of 2017-18.
So, in ending.
This is as masterful as films can get. This is as subjective as films get. This is as accurate to our current digital age as a film can get. This is as close to my personal struggles of social anxiety and fears that a film can get. This film is monumental in its simplicity. It is executed on a level that is so high, I have trouble explaining myself. Elsie Fisher breathes life into ‘Kayla’ with all her complexities and tendencies. Bo Burnham has cemented himself as a prodigy of filmmaking with his debut. This film is confident, vibrant, uncomfortable, hilarious, awkward, painful, masterful, personal, human, digital, real, and most of all it is what films do best, it reflects. It reflects me. It reflects youth. It reflects us. It reflects our time. It might even reflect you, but most of all it reflects this young girls struggles of eighth grade. It is truly a masterpiece.