EIGHTH GRADE (2018, Bo Burnham)
Hits its target cleanly, but this isn’t some 200-yard bullseye in high winds. It’s a softball aiming at a mattress. At some point it needs to stop seeming profound when it’s pointed out to us that teenagers struggle with their identities and with peer pressure and friends and school, and that the world feels overwhelming to their complicated developing emotions. Yes, that’s true. But revealing that kids actually have acne isn’t some historical wisdom unearthed from the writings of Lao Tze or anything. We get it, we’ve all been there.
It’s nice when a movie subverts the even worse tropes of clichéd one-dimensional teen props, and recognizes the nuances of their lives. But is that our standard now? Just being better than the worst aspects of bad movies? Burnham’s feature debut never rises too far above that goal, even though it nicely explores how phony teens are when they present to social media the personalities they wish they had. In so many other respects it’s just like many other EDGE-OF-SEVENTEEN-type coming-of-age indies, maturely reckoning with uncomfortable subject matter and being overly proud of its young cast.
Josh Hamilton (who annoyingly seems to have barely aged in the 25 years since I first saw him in ALIVE) shines as Kayla’s dad, and he gets that emotional father-daughter fireside chat scene to elevate the movie, even though I couldn’t help but wish it was part of a stronger film. He and Fisher do a good job. (Hamilton has a line reading to her, which is nothing but the word “Yes,” that’s so funny it deserves an Oscar on its own). But the cinematography is barely functional, often flattened out and poorly composed. It magnifies the worst aspects of its digital cameras. Burnham’s brilliant stage act highlights clever writing and stinging meta-humor. This script, while funny in its own right, doesn’t play to his strengths. He may one day be a very good director, but this heralded start doesn’t play as much more than an easy mediocrity.