Eighth Grade

Everyone is praising 28-year-old Bo Burnham for this, his debut film. He’s a comedian, singer/songwriter, rapper, and all-around talented guy. And for a first film, this is a nice start. But he’s no Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You). This is a movie that’s going to end up on many critics “best of” lists at the end of the year, and will probably top my list of most overrated of the year.

The story is about 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who does video blogs that nobody watches. She gives advice on how to “be yourself” or how to “be more confident,” yet she doesn’t practice what she preaches. In fact, she was named “quietest” in her class. She has a crush on the guy who was voted “best eyes” but he doesn’t have eyes for her. Well, at least not until she hints that she has nude photos that she’ll only share with a “boyfriend.” Clever. I was waiting for her commentary on deceiving creepy guys.

She’s being raised by her dad, played by Josh Hamilton, who has done many films, including three I loved — Manchester by the Sea, Frances Ha, and Diggers. He’s a widower, and doing the best he can. In early scenes, it felt authentic watching him try to joke with his daughter, or trying to get her to put her phone away during dinner without coming across as overbearing. It might be a bit cliche, but…it’s not until later in the movie when he’s caught spying on her that I really rolled my eyes at the many goofy scenarios presented in this movie. Basically, for all the authenticity it gives us, the problem is that you’re watching 8th graders, and that’s only so interesting. For example, one scene that works well, has Kayla hanging out with older kids at the mall. You’re wondering what’s going through her head, as she listenings to them talk about classmates and trivial BS. Yet you then realize that watching high school kids drone on about their silliness isn’t all that interesting, either.

You can make coming-of-age movies that show awkwardness, in a very interesting way. In the ‘80s in my teen years, I saw that with John Hughes movies and Molly Ringwald. In the ‘90s it was in Welcome to the Dollhouse (a terrific Todd Solondz film) and Ghost World (Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi). Even foreign films have been able to grab me while tackling these topics — Submarine (Sally Hawkins) out of Wales, is a criminally underseen film from eight years ago.

It’s a shame this movie never quite works as well as it should. The performance from Fisher is outstanding. And the director has a timely film, capturing social media and kids’ addictions to their cell phones. In a funny twist on the parent walking in on the teenage boy when he is…uh…wanting privacy…this father walks in while she has a picture of a guy on her cell phone she’s pretending to kiss. So she chucks the phone across the room breaking the screen.

Some might complain that you’re not sure how to feel about this kid. Are we laughing at her awkwardness and stupidity, or are we sympathizing and remembering our awkward youth experiences? And should we feel bad for laughing at her, the way we did laughing at Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins?

All my complaining about this doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable to watch. It’s just that the scenes I really enjoyed (two of them involve actor Jake Ryan of Moonrise Kingdom), made me yearn for a better script. In Ryan’s scenes, he’s even more awkward than Fisher. She’s embarrassed by her ill-fitting, lime green bathing suit that’s worn to the queen bee’s birthday bash. Yet she’s even more embarrassed that he’s trying to impress her in the swimming pool by doing handstands underwater. I won’t spoil the scene they share later in the movie, which is incredible.

It was satisfying to see that what Kayla does to attract Aiden (Luke Prael) doesn’t worry us as much as we thought it would, but a jam she gets into with an older guy does. Again, it makes you wish more of those moments could’ve been given to us throughout.

It’s just hard to buy that her dad is this oblivious, especially when we’re shown how smart and caring he can be. It’s hard to buy that this girl, who isn’t stupid, is this socially awkward. I had the same difficulty buying Christian Slater as the shy high school student who, when behind the microphone of his pirate radio station, was a totally different person (Pump up the Volume, from almost 30 years ago).

The soundtrack was awfully annoying (at one point, it reminded me of Submarine, but the music worked better in that film).

The whole thing just felt like an Afterschool Special.

Burnham, despite having a keen awareness for how today’s teens love social media, ends up giving us stereotypes and cliches. Yet I’ll be looking forward to his next film.

2 stars out of 5.