What looks like a typical coming-of-age story is imbued with such an incredible level of empathy it’s shocking. An absolute must see for anyone, but especially those who were once 8th grade girls. Buy the ticket.
What Works: The captivating realness of its lead, the sheer amount of empathy shown, and the love it conveys.
Eighth Grade seeks to do one thing above all else: tell the story of one week of one eighth grade girl truthfully.
And it does so wonderfully.
Elsie Fisher, who you may know as Agnes from the Despicable Me franchise, carries the film almost entirely on her own shoulders. Her performance is brilliant, if for no other reason than its palpable truth.
She is awkward and anxious, cold and closed off, warm and desperately searching for someone to see what she does, or wants to, or maybe can’t.
Your average film might treat Fisher’s teenage girl as a deep mystery, frustratingly random, with ever-changing moods and needs that have no place in reason, and serve only to confuse the probably-older-male lead. They just can’t be understood, and if only they could get off their damn phones.
Josh Hamilton, playing the father, is certainly confused for much of the movie, but the audience is not placed in his head. He is not given the benefit of the point of view, nor the audience’s empathy. Instead, it is always with Fisher, and the result is a far more emotionally honest and therapeutic look at the life of an 8th grade girl and the dads who are raising them.
The most intriguing part of Eighth Grade‘s approach is that is not concerned with the truth as viewed by the world, but solely with Fisher’s truth.
The highlight of film and best example of this is a scene where Fisher begins to sing karaoke, and the scene fall silent. The only noise is her own voice over, discussing self-confidence.
The “truth” as to the quality of her voice or performance is irrelevant; Fisher feels confident, and therefore when the camera pans to the other kids looking at her, the audience can only read their faces based on her internal thoughts.
This is her moment, her life, and her movie. You’re just along for the ride.
What Doesn’t: Nothing of consequence.
Beyond the Screen: It is a rare thing to see a movie not pass judgement on its young woman lead.
Eighth Grade begs, screams even, for you to understand, for one fleeting point in time, the young woman who leads it.
The film passes no judgement on its lead character. This is not to say that she falls under the often-used infallible-virgin trope; she is certainly flawed.
But rather than focusing on those flaws, tearing the character down for them, and only giving redemption when they acquiesce (think the “makeover” scene in many movies), Eighth Grade simply takes her as she is.
These flaws have deep roots, mired with all the complexity of adolescence, but exacerbated by virtue of the character being a young woman, and more specifically, a member of Generation Z.
She is who she is. And this is her story. Through ingenious framing devices and storytelling, the film forces you to be in her head, to empathize, to feel what she feels.
And that’s a special thing.
“Thirteen-year-old Kayla endures the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence as she makes her way through the last week of middle school–the end of her thus far disastrous eighth grade year before she begins high school.” -Rotten Tomatoes