Sundance 2018 Review: Eighth Grade is a One of a Kind Coming-of-Age Masterpiece That Shouldn’t Be Missed.
Every year leading up to the Sundance Festival there are several highly anticipated films that are mentioned over and over again on various websites. While there has been a lot of pre-festival buzz about several films premiering at this years fest, I do believe that almost every single list that I read mentioned the film Eighth Grade which is the highly anticipated directorial debut of comedian Bo Burnham. The film premiered on Friday evening at the Sundance Film Festival, and I was lucky enough to be at the World Premiere.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Eighth Grade before attending the screening. I read the plot description online which sounded a lot like your typical coming of age film. Eighth Grade follows eighth grader Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) as she finishes up her final week in middle school. As a viewer, you get to spend a week with Kayla as she prepares herself mentally and physically for high school.
Just a few months ago, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird blew audiences away. Now, Bo Burnham’s directorial debut ups the ante and is a game changer when it comes to coming-of-age films. While most coming-of-age movies are centered around high school students preparing or going to college, Eighth Grade focuses on a female middle schooler about to enter high school which is something that is rarely seen on film.
The character of Kayla Day is brought to life by Elise Fisher. This tour-de-force performance is one of the most authentic and honest portrayals of a teenager in cinema history. Fisher, who never acted before being cast in this role, is certain to become a massive star as more and more audiences begin to see this film and talk about her performance. I honestly believe that everyone who sees this film will be talking about how genuine and authentic Fisher’s performance is.
With that being said, there is no denying that there is something extraordinary about seeing a film where you know that the person playing the lead character experienced a lot of what is happening on-screen. This isn’t a 20-something actor portraying a 13-year-old but rather just a regular everyday teenager pouring her heart and soul into the material. There is a difference, and when you see Fisher’s marvelous performance first hand, you will ultimately understand what I mean.
Fisher’s performance is so transformative that for 90% of the film the viewer doesn’t feel like they are watching a work of fiction but instead a documentary based on the life of an actual teenage girl. The audience members in a lot of ways are treated as though they are voyeurs getting a personal and in-depth look into the life of this teenage girl as she struggles to understand life, dating, and friendships. Kayla is a very easy character to get behind and champion. She is funny, smart, and compassionate. Her only real problem is that she lacks experience which in return makes her somewhat naive.
Throughout this film, Kayla struggles with her day to day life. She records a video where she tries to motivate others to be who they are and believe in themselves. Every single scene in this film comes across as true to life. Even though Kayla is a character in this film, in reality, there are hundreds of teenage girls just like her. Kayla uses Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. She yells at her dad for trying to have a conversation while she continually tries to figure out who she is.
There are so many moments throughout the film that perfectly showcase the level of awkwardness that comes with being a teenager. I love Kayla’s interactions with Aiden and Gabe and the scenes where her father randomly bursts through the door when she’s looking at something inappropriate on her phone or computer. These moments are all captured with such ease and are usually very humorous to watch.
Burnham’s screenplay is unlike any other coming of age screenplay because it feels entirely true to life. The way that Kayla and the other teenagers’ talk isn’t what a viewer is used to hearing. The language of the characters in Eighth Grade feels natural because Burnham’s screenplay incorporates filler words such as “like” and “umm” into the script. This may not seem like something that would make that big of a difference but if you are trying to tell an authentic story about teenagers and understanding how they talk to one another does make a huge difference. Burnham understands that, and I applaud him so much for writing dialogue that actually comes across as natural rather than scripted.
Another critical thing to note about Burnham’s screenplay is that film perfectly captures life in middle school meaning the film shows the duality of teenage life; the good and the bad. About midway through the film, Kayla gets to visit the high school where she will attend next year. She gets partnered up with a girl named Olivia who welcomes her into her group of friends with open arms. However, there is a scene where Olivia and Kayla are being driven home by one of Olivia’s male friends. He drops Olivia off and then proceeds to park while trying to get Kayla to play truth or dare. I don’t want to ruin this scene for anyone, but it is such a powerful moment in the film. The way that the scene ultimately plays out is handled so maturely and with such honesty.
Year after year, there is always at least one great coming of age film, but I do believe that Eighth Grade will blow audiences away. What Bo Burnham has accomplished with his directorial debut is nothing short of extraordinary. He manages to bring to life a genuine story about a 13-year-old girl that will redefine the genre. Eighth Grade is a game changer and will turn its lead into one of the most sought-after young actresses in Hollywood. Eighth Grade is my favorite film so far from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and I am doubtful that anything else will top it.
Scott ‘Movie Man’ Menzel’s rating for Eighth Grade is a 9.5 out of 10.