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09 Aug 2018

Middle School Masterpiece: 'Eighth Grade' May Just Be This Decade's Great Film About Growing Up

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Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton in Eighth Grade. Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton in Eighth Grade.

Every decade, it seems like one great movie is made about growing up.

In the 1970s, it was The Bad News Bears. In the ’80s … The Breakfast Club. In the ’90s, I’ll go with Rushmore. The ’00s, it was probably Superbad.

Here in the ’10s, or whatever the hell you call this decade, we now have Bo Burnham’s incredibly awesome feature-writing and feature-directing debut, Eighth Grade.

This movie is a masterpiece in so many ways, from its perfect casting, to its crafty camerawork, to its immersive electronic score by Anna Meredith. But most of all, this movie is fantastic due to its central performances from Elsie Fisher as Kayla, and Josh Hamilton as her dad.

Going into this movie, I didn’t realize Fisher was already a cinematic hero of mine: It turns out she’s the voice of Agnes from the first two Despicable Me movies. (Agnes is the “It’s so fluffy I’m gonna die!” girl.) So Fisher, in my mind, is one of the great vocal actresses of all time, because that moment right there is legendary in the world of animation. Hell, I have it as a ringtone.

In Eighth Grade, Fisher shows her talents go well beyond vocals, as she creates a character that captures the awkwardness, joy, sorrow and virtual hell of that final year before high school, when everything is just about to shift into an all-new, freaky gear. Yes, the movie captures the significance of social media and its impact on adolescents, but so much of this film is timeless and universal. It’s a storytelling triumph.

Kayla is an introvert (She wins “Most Quiet” in the final days of junior high, much to her chagrin), but she expresses herself well on her YouTube channel, which features tips for her peers. Few of those peers actually watch her videos—a sad thing, considering the videos are actually quite incisive and might help some of her brattier classmates become better people.

To her horror, Kayla is invited to a popular girl’s birthday party—something akin to a swim in the river Styx in her mind. It’s in this scene that Meredith’s score truly shines, as Kayla takes that dreaded walk from the house to the pool, feeling alienated among dancing partygoers as the soundtrack pounds. It’s a great moment.

While the film is certainly funny, it also tackles the nasty side of childhood head-on—sometimes in scary fashion. As Kayla prepares for high school, she winds up in a situation or two that takes her from joyful elation to horror in mere seconds. It’s heartbreaking and even terrifying to watch at times, but Burnham and Fisher expertly navigate the emotional waves.

Veteran actor Hamilton (who kind of resembles Monty Python’s Michael Palin) is a revelation as the father. He’s been around and doing good work for a long time—heck, I was watching him as the first one to “eat” in Alive the night before seeing this. He has a fireside chat with Fisher in this film that will have you squirting tears, especially if you are a dad with a little girl. That moment alone makes him an awards contender.

I’m giving early Oscar nominations (It’s my column, and I have the power to do that in my alternate reality!) to both Fisher and Hamilton for what they do together in this movie. Fisher is a legit Best Actress contender, while Hamilton deserves a nod for Best Supporting Actor. They make an all-time-great father-daughter character pairing, right up there with Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons, paired earlier this summer in Hearts Beat Loud.

I love this movie. It had me laughing my ass off, wide-eyed with terror, crying like a baby and smiling from ear to ear. Congratulations to Hamilton for getting the role of his career, and congrats to Fisher, who has a nice long beautiful career ahead of her.

Eighth Grade is playing at theaters across the valley.

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