Sundance 2018: Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade

On Film / The Daily — Jan 26, 2018

“I’m glad that I wasn’t familiar with the work of comedian and YouTube star Bo Burnham before seeing his directorial debut Eighth Grade,” begins the Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri, “because otherwise I’m not sure how I would have initially received this engagingly modest film—which at times feels like the polar opposite of Burnham’s rapid-fire, maximalist, sometimes-politically-incorrect style of aggro comedy. Part of Eighth Grade’s charm comes from a refusal to go for easy confrontations or humiliations; it keeps threatening to become a cringe-fest, but pulls back, as Burnham opts instead for something more human and realistic. There’s a lived-in wisdom in the film.”

“Burnham’s stroke of genius, luck, or both was the casting of Elsie Fisher, best known for voicing pint-sized unicorn fanatic Agnes in the Despicable Me movies,” writes the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd. “As Kayla, who shoots her own weekly YouTube advice column amusingly out of step with the reality of her status as class wallflower, Fisher brings a spot-on self-consciousness to the role—a fumbling sincerity, a struggle to get out every word, that makes her alternately invisible and vulnerable to her confident, shark-eyed teenage classmates. . . . The film isn’t much more than a modest slice of adolescent life, but its mixture of crushing realism and humane affection marks it as one of the festival’s biggest charmers.”

“Burnham displays a preference for traveling masters rather than coverage and cutting, avoiding conspicuously flashy shots but generally choosing the right place for the camera to go,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov. “The eighth graders here actually look like awkward adolescents rather than happy accidents of genetic fortune amplified by workout routines and Hollywood makeup, and their interactions feel credible.”

“Burnham’s direction is patient and endlessly empathetic,” adds Emily Yoshida at Vulture, and “it’s an out-of-the-gate confidence that is as pleasantly surprising as fellow comedian turned auteur Jordan Peele’s. It’s excellently complemented by the excitable electronic score composed by Anna Meredith, which lends a pulsating thump to Kayla’s doofy, dreamy-eyed crush, and a shakily hopeful buzz to the chaos of a middle-school hallway.”

Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf: “There's a whiff of helicopter-parent nervousness and anti-Instagram hectoring to Eighth Grade—Kayla as well as her bitchy nemesis, Kennedy, both spend a pointed amount of time staring into tiny screens—plus the arrival of a gloriously supportive older high-school mentor, Olivia (Emily Robinson), and some adorkable boyfriend material in condiment-loving Gabe (Jake Ryan) feels safe. But Burnham's directorial confidence grows in tandem with that of his main character.”

“As a single parent, her dad (Josh Hamilton) is deeply proud of his daughter, wanting to genuinely connect with her, even when she’s absorbed by the glow of her phone,” writes Jordan Raup at the Film Stage. “Always a voice of calming reason, Kayla’s father has a sheepy, good-hearted dorkiness, even though a third act scene of compassion becomes overly preachy and obvious when compared to the more focused drama beforehand. One of Eighth Grade’s greatest strengths is its specificity related to the current generation. A shocking shot of kids getting mowed down by a gunman at school is revealed as drama club-assisted drill, and the nonchalantness each student embodies is chilling.”

“Our film concerns two very specific and incredibly chaotic times,” Burnham tells Filmmaker: “eighth grade and right now—and we wanted to portray those times honestly. Not to interpret what was happening and provide answers, but to capture what’s happening and pursue the feeling of not having answers. . . . So much of the joy of working on this film came from how alive and chaotic and free and wild the kids were . . . I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to work with those funny, sweet, shy, loud, lovable, terrifying, chaotic, weird, little lizard people.”

More from Peter Debruge (Variety), Matthew Delman (Hammer to Nail), Kate Erbland (IndieWire, A-), Leslie Felperin (Hollywood Reporter), Anthony Kaufman (Screen), Scott Renshaw (Salt Lake City Weekly, 3.5/4), and Jordan Ruimy (Playlist, B+). Kevin Fallon profiles Fisher for the Daily Beast. And Eight Grade is one of the films Eric Hynes and Nicolas Rapold discuss in a recent episode of the Film Comment Podcast (29’06”).

Updates, 1/27: “Many of the film’s scenes are apocalyptically uncomfortable and exacting,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, who “watched an exquisitely written and all too relatable pool party scene through my fingers—but Burnham’s goal is not to make us feel awful, or to punish his characters. Eighth Grade is surprisingly humane, a cringe-fest that expresses an abundance of sympathy even as it evokes so many terribly sweaty, zitty memories.”

Eighth Grade is a fresh comedy that truly pops and captivates,” adds Nick Allen at RogerEbert.com.

Update, 1/28: “No other Sundance movie genuinely moved us as much as this painfully authentic Tales of an Eighth-Grade Nothing, or felt more graceful in the way it cracked us up one second and made us tear you up the next,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear.

Updates, 1/30: Mike D’Angelo finds Eighth Grade to be “ solid, slightly overemphatic portrait of awkward adolescence that plays like significantly less cruel Solondz. Fine by me. . . . I tend to resist films that solicit my sympathy this aggressively, but Elsie Fisher's raw wound of a performance gradually wore me down. And Josh Hamilton gets to play Stuhlbarg's Call Me by Your Name dad crossed with Balaban's Ghost World dad, which is a fun combo.”

“Burnham is emotionally honest in a way that if Kayla’s story was not your experience in the eighth grade, you at least remember that kid,” writes Gary Wilkerson, Jr. at RogerEbert.com. “You wonder if you really saw them.”

Update, 3/18: “My first thought was, ‘A story about the internet—I better do some big, sprawling thing,’” Burnham tells Matt Mulcahey at Filmmaker. “I started writing a bunch of things and stumbled on Kayla’s voice. I felt like I could say everything I wanted to say through that character, and it became more of a character study than some wild, multi-layered thing with all these bells and whistles.”

Update, 3/31: The new A24 Podcast (48’08”) features Jerrod Carmichael and Burnham discussing Eighth Grade, “the Internet, and staying sane in a culture where everything ages like milk.”

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