Eighth Grade: The R-rated lives of teenage girls

Nine times out of 10, movies are for escapism, a chance to remove yourself from the cares, worries and needs of the day.

To simply be transported elsewhere.

“Eighth Grade” isn’t one of those films.

From first time writer/director Bo Burnham, a 27-year-old stand-up comedian, this searing, unexpected tale of a 13-year-old girl’s final days in middle school is every bit of life in 2018.

The expectation is that introspective, philosophical films are centered around pensive, wistful older men. “Eighth Grade” subverts that tradition by following 13-year-old wallflower Kayla in the final moments before middle school ends.

Being popular, liking a boy and hoping he likes you back, the life or death tragedies of someone too young to know true life or death tragedies are genuine in a way cinema doesn’t normally approach middle school drama.

There’s a raw, flawed quality to “Eighth Grade” that permeates from start to finish with “actors” taking Burnham’s script and becoming hyper-realized versions of themselves. The magic of the movie comes from how little movie magic there truly is.

Dialogue lacks refinement, scenes flicker in bouts of light and darkness, zits; the flaws are celebrated through the simplicity of acknowledgment.

Burnham’s greatest success as a writer/director isn’t found in a single moment or in the terrific performances he captures from real eighth graders. “Eighth Grade” works because Burnham envelops the entire film in reality, flaws and all, and doesn’t get in his own way by doing too much.

The same can easily be said of the dynamic 15-year-old actress who stars as Kayla, Elsie Fisher. Filming just a week after finishing middle school herself, the then 13-year-old Fisher channels the awkward shyness that comes from a young person wanting to be more outgoing than they truly are.

Because she’s obviously lived in these moments so recently, there’s a natural, effortlessness to her performance, which changes on a dime when Kayla is at the dinner table with her single father, at school surrounded by the same kids she’s spent eight years with or alone in her bedroom where no one is watching.

“Eighth Grade” is a fictionalized portrait of hope and existential crisis all smashed up into one messy heap of emotions. It requires the genuine, humble performance Fisher excels at bringing to the screen at every turn, making her experiences infinitely relatable even for those who — like the filmmaker — have never been a 13-year-old girl.

“Eighth Grade” revels in the uncomfortable, pressing audiences to squirm in their seats lightheartedly as Kayla attempts to flirt with a crush and then in more serious, compromising situations as well.

Burnham pulls no punches in the film, opting to press into subjects like depression, sexual experience (or lack thereof) and school violence rather than skirt the issue.

A visceral, gripping tale, “Eighth Grade” captures an innate authenticity and sense of place within modern culture for teens and pre-teens both cinematically and emotionally.

Social media — Snapchat and Instagram, rather than dated apps like Facebook and Twitter — provide context into Kayla’s inner thoughts through visual storytelling. Audiences are able to ride the emotional roller coaster of a 13-year-old girl by watching her angst over taking the perfect selfie.

The YouTube vlogs she makes over the course of the week also greatly enhance viewers’ understanding of existential crisis among early teens while simultaneously wrapping the film in a neat little bow of movie magic.

Sadly, this “indie darling” probably won’t gain enough positive momentum from an early August release to break into awards season consideration, though “Eighth Grade” will be sure to play a prominent role in a large number of critics’ top 10 lists at the end of the year.

Smaller groups, such as the Film Independent Spirit Awards, will likely honor Burnham for his terrific debut as a filmmaker and Fisher on her breakout lead performance.

Viewers may cringe more than once for Kayla. “Eighth Grade” is intended to be an unsettling experience.

At the same time, Burnham has crafted a film that stays with its audience long after the credits roll.

Parents may not want to bring their pre-teen or teenage children to see “Eighth Grade,” but there’s simply nothing in the R-rated film that doesn’t already happen in middle schools across the country.

It’s a conversation starter to be sure, but “Eighth Grade” proves the need for honest and open communication with families and friends.

A singular experience unlikely to be matched this year, “Eighth Grade” is 2018 both cinematically and in reality.

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