SXSW Review: ‘Eighth Grade’ Will Take You Back To School

Eighth Grade (4 stars)
Not rated, 94 minutes.
Release date is to be announced.

By Preston Barta
Film Critic

AUSTIN – Comedian Bo Burnham’s feature debut, Eighth Grade, is funny, relatable, honest –everything you could want from a good coming-of-age movie.

This A24-distributed feature takes us through a teenager’s experience of her last week of middle school. It’s got an inkling of Richard Linklater’s filmmaking technique – how life can steer us in strange directions and how time can affect us – but it isn’t clouded with so much poetry and existential questioning that you’re taken out of the film.

The central teen, Kayla (the naturally gifted Elsie Fisher), taps into many of the moments you may recall from being a middle school student. There are thoughts of wanting to be accepted, valued by your peers, and the longing for the good looking boy or girl. It has it all. But it also filters that through a modern day lens, which many filmmakers have expressed disinterest in because of the difficulty of trying to make the age of the technology and social media appealing.

That said, Burnham manages to find the sweet spot. He aesthetically uses cellphones in creative ways, and also pokes fun at the frustration of kids constantly being on their phones and gadgets. There are multiple scenes where the popular girls of the school choose to burry their faces in their tech rather than talk face to face with the person who is trying to converse with them. We’re all just loosely connected, right.

Even the way Burnham handles the relationship between a father and his child hits home. Personally, I am only the father of a seven-month old boy, but like what Burnham said during the film’s post-screening question-and-answer session, I feel like I am on a nice bridge between being a kid and being an adult/parent. The way Kayla’s father, played by the heartwarming and hilarious Josh Hamilton (13 Reasons Why, Frances Ha), hones in on the struggle of communicating with your child, who, like any typical teen, wants barely anything to do with their parents. He’ll protectively watch over his daughter while she goes to have a fun hangout with her friends at the mall and will also be there to listen when she wants to talk. One moment in the backyard and a bonfire will hit the feels.

Eighth Grade is not a loud or mainstream version of growing up. It’s an authentic one. Like teens today who speak in “ums,” “likes” and “whatevers,” it may leave you grinding your teeth, but it captures youth in such a way that no other film has.

Eight Grade will have an encore screening at SXSW on Monday at 2:15 p.m. and Wednesday at 4:45 p.m. Visit sxsw.com for details on tickets and the screening.

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