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Bo Burnham excels in directorial debut

Emily+Robinson+and+Elsie+Fisher+in+Eighth+Grade.
Emily Robinson and Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade.

Emily Robinson and Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade.

Photo courtesy of IMBD

Photo courtesy of IMBD

Emily Robinson and Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade.

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While I may not have been there since the beginning, it has certainly been interesting to see the wide arc Bo Burnham’s career has been. He began filming YouTube videos in his bedroom, playing songs that he wrote when he was 16. By 19 he was filming his first stand up special with Comedy Central, “Words Words Words.” He made two more specials, “what.” in 2012 and “Make Happy” in 2016. He even cultivated a solid Vine following, back when that video platform was around. Now here he is at 27, creating a feature a film that just got picked up by A24 (the same distributor that helped produce “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird,” among others) and will be shown on screens nationwide July 13. He did a bang-up job of it too. So, no pressure or anything guys. Just keep doing you.

“Eighth Grade” has Elsie Fisher take on the character of Kayla, a young girl one week away from graduating middle school.

That’s it.

Youtube

It would be fruitless to explain any more because from the outside looking in, not much happens. But what Burnham is able to succeed in doing is the act of creating tension from a set of normal circumstances. Sometimes it’s going to the pool and swimming with classmates. Sometimes it’s sitting in a car with someone Kayla doesn’t know. Sometimes it’s as simple as trying to get through a conversation without screwing up too much.

It brings to life the life and death feeling that can accompany these moments for kids. That feeling comes through in the intense electronic score that blares over the sound of anything else: the slow walk Kayla takes between the bathroom and the pool; the way she gives a huge smile when she tries to burst out of her comfort zone; the way the Photobooth countdown almost echoes her heartbeat before she films her latest YouTube video. It is a feeling that certainly I experienced as a young lad, but it’s one I (and, I’d think, everyone else) still has. Maybe we don’t experience these things in the same situations Kayla does, but we all nonetheless go through certain moments that shouldn’t be as stressful as they are – yet we can’t shake our feelings of anxiety.

While Fisher is known, among other things, for her role as the outspoken Agnes in the “Despicable Me” movies, all traces of that character will slip away the moment you see Kayla filming her introductory YouTube video.

During these YouTube videos the dialogue feels incredibly extemporaneous, as Fisher stumbles from word to word, repeating herself and throwing in a myriad of “likes,” “ums” and “ahs.”  Burnham said in a Q&A after the screening that the scenes were purposely written that way. The fact that they feel so natural is a credit to the writing, as well as the great technical performance from Fisher.

The final thing that really stuck out is her expressions. In the beginning of the film, Kayla wins the Eighth Grade superlative “Most Quiet,” and there are plenty of lengthy sections in the movie during which she goes without speaking at all. During these moments it is easy to take for granted that you feel like you know exactly what is going on in her head, but make no mistake, that is a tricky thing to do. It is especially notable since younger actors often get a bad rap on these sort of things; there are no such issues here.

These elements all lead to the film being a well-executed coming of age drama. Yes, there are some comedy elements as well, but those are not the focus. While slower-paced films often try to compensate for their pacing by inviting viewers to engage in thought with what is happening, this film is different.

As Kayla struggles to get her emotions out through her videos, the film challenges viewers to think about the different ways in which social media can allow people to reach communities that are otherwise out of reach. As she scrolls through the Instagram posts of some of the more popular kids in her grade, the film raises the issue of the pressures that social media can bring to young kids’ lives. In his feature directorial debut, Mr. Burnham has conducted a technically well done coming of age story. The performances, music and camera work are great, and the script does a nice job of really hitting on strong themes while giving them the proper amount of respect. For those who enjoy dramas on any level,  I highly recommend this one.

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Bo Burnham excels in directorial debut