Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Sundance with Abe: Eighth Grade

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.

Eighth Grade
Directed by Bo Burnham
U.S. Dramatic Competition

If high school is hard, middle school can be even worse. Kids are still developing, both physically and emotionally, and there’s the potential for a whole lot of heartbreak in mockery and broken friendships designed to boost social status. It’s infinitely worse now that middle schoolers have smart phones, something unimaginable for this reviewer who is still considered young by many. It’s a wonder that anyone even makes it past middle school, as explored by this humorous take on what it’s like to go unnoticed in eighth grade.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is very talkative – but only at home. She hosts a video series in which she shares some of the things she’s learned in life, but doesn’t manage to put most of those into practice when she goes to school. Glued to her smartphone and addicted to social media, she doesn’t have much human contact aside from her clueless single father (Josh Hamilton). When she meets a high school mentor (Emily Robinson) who actually shows an interest in her, she begins to slowly incorporate some of the wisdom she relays to anonymous followers into the way she interacts with others.

This is a funny, endearing take on what it’s like to be in middle school. There are no “mean girls” or other cruel individuals seeking to ruin Kayla’s life, merely girls who won’t even look up from their phones when she speaks to them and boys only interested in seeing racy pictures or being offered sexual favors. Kayla fits in so well to this film’s universe, as someone at risk of never being seen by those she actually wants to see her, since her well-meaning dad keeps a very close eye on her, much to her frustration and embarrassment.

Fisher is great as Kayla, giving her a silent confidence that allows her to be brave in isolated situations and to sink into a shell of herself in others. She’s a wonderful protagonist, one who helps this harmless, entertaining film to work so well. What happens to her is often humorous, and it’s her reactions that make everything all the more worthwhile. It’s nice to see a movie about how awkward eighth grade can be without featuring anything truly horrible happening, and that’s one of the reasons that this directorial debut from Bo Burnham seems to have been received so warmly by wide audiences at Sundance.


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