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Sundance Film Festival 2018: Eighth Grade review - a reverent portrayal of teenage troubles

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Bo Burnham’s not-quite coming-of-age drama is a triumph of the modern age, and an absolute must see.

It’s a film for a demographic usually invisible on screen - not a 16 year old sexual awakening high school film, but a 13 year old middle school film which treats the challenges kids of that age face with the utmost respect. 

The technological age we live in undoubtedly has affected kids now who grow up with the internet at their fingertips and social media so closely interwoven into their lives, but this film never seems to take the stance of millennial-hating opinion columnists that state the younger generations are rotting their brains by staring at their phones. 

Our protagonist Kayla, played phenomenally by Elsie Fisher, is attached to her phone, sure, but her use of social media is presented in a truthful way, and without judgement. Instagram can be used to connect with people as well as to receive mean DMs from classmates. Youtube can be used to hone makeup skills that girls are expected to have at younger and younger ages, but it is also Kayla’s preferred platform for self expression.

The film is sprinkled with the advice videos that she makes on her channel, helping kids her age with things like “self confidence” and “stepping out of your comfort zone” - things she struggles with herself at school. The gap between who she is and how she presents herself online again is something explored with such tenderness rather than simply bashing social media culture.

On her journey through the last week of 8th grade (that’s year 9 to us), Kayla deals with pool parties, trying to befriend the school’s mean girls, crushing on the cutest boy in class, and hanging out with high schoolers - all while trying her best to avoid conversation with her goofy dad. 

Josh Hamilton plays her single father, trying his best to connect with a daughter who’d much rather listen to music through headphones at the dinner table than talk to him, and who flips out over the slightest thing. The film does a great job at displaying both their perspectives with such care and respect that in any given situation you can empathise with both, and can always see the love they have for each other. Hamilton plays her father with such soft eyed love that it’s making me tear up just writing about it. 

The theme of growing up is key, and we see Kayla try to grow up a little too fast as she befriends a high schooler Olivia (Emily Robinson) on “high school shadow day,” preferring her company to her peers who she can’t seem to make friends with. The situation which arises from this is stomach-droppingly painful to watch, but again is handled with such care in the film that is does nothing but serve the narrative and Kayla’s journey. 

The camera work and sound does an incredible job at conveying the paralysing effects of social anxiety - especially for a 13 year old at a pool party where no one really likes her. It really puts you in her shoes, and the empathy it creates is unparalleled. To so effectively convey the perspective of a 13 year old is no easy task, but at no point does the audience lose track of her emotions and their causes. It’s so easy as adults to look back on middle school and think any problems faced at that age are trifling, but Kayla puts it best as she prays for her his school shadow day to go well, “This is one of the biggest things that has ever happened to me in my life.” - and it is.

This film delivers a message that applies universally, no matter your age - that there’s always an opportunity for a fresh start, no matter what has gone before, and that approaching it with optimism is the best way. 

The emotional climax of the film comes not between Kayla and any friends or potential romantic interests - it comes between her and her father, in one of the most tear-jerkingly moving scenes I’ve seen in a long time. I challenge you not to cry as Kayla tearily explains her feelings to her dad, and Hamilton just knocks it out of the park with his response. 

His journey, and the journey of their relationship, is one of the best parent/child dynamics on film, and it’s a must see for anyone who ever felt awkward in middle school - so basically it’s a film for everyone. 

The structure and the pacing isn’t always perfect, but it seems wrong to nitpick a film that generated such a huge and genuine emotional response, so I won’t. Bo Burnham deserves all the praise he can get for this triumphant directorial debut. Eighth Grade rightfully won the Audience Choice award at Sundance London.

Eighth Grade screened at Sundance London, but does not yet have a UK release date.

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