Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bo Burnham
Screenwriter: Bo Burnham
Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 6/21/18
Opens: July 13, 2018
In the Jewish religion a boy becomes a man at the age of thirteen. Fashionably enough, particularly in an age that women demand equality with men, a girl becomes a woman at thirteen as well. Notwithstanding assertions at Bar Mitzvahs and Bas Mitzvahs, thirteen-year-olds are hardly men and women, though perhaps in Biblical times when folks had a life expectancy of fifty (Methuselah among the exceptions), teens became adults. Nowadays, let’s compromise and say that we start thinking of ourselves as adults at that age while still anchored in childhood. We want to be adults but are wondering what responsibilities will bring. Most of all, at the age of thirteen we are afraid of not fitting in. If you go through school thinking and acting awkwardly, if you don’t have friends, you will not look back kindly at early adolescence. That’s where Kayla (Elise Fisher) comes in.
Like some of her classmates, she has a face covered by acne—except in scenes where she doesn’t—but that’s not her concern. She’s not bullied; more like she’s ignored, and that is a worry for anyone her age and also for their caregivers. Kayla’s dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) is a single father who worries about her. He tries to talk with her at the dinner table but she does not look at him, she does not hear him with those infernal ear buds in her head, and she’s irritated when he tries to converse with her.
Twenty-eight-year-old writer-director Bo Burnham’s “The Big Sick” focuses on a comedian, so we figure we’re not going to get another “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” Todd Solondz’s caustic look at an unattractive seventh grader who has good reason to feel anxiety. “Eighth Grade” by contrast is a feel-good treatment of a thirteen-year-old middle schooler who hates when people call her “quiet,” though she herself does not agree with that label. Trying to prove this, she knocks out a series of videos in her bedroom giving advice to others of her generation, counsel that she tries, with only limited success, to follow in her own life.
At a pool party given by one of the school’s rich kids, she spots others having great fun, shooting one another with water cannons, showing off as one boy does when fitted with goggles that fit over his nose he tries without success to do hand-stands. The tentative conversation between him and Kayla is rich with insight into the minds of people their age, just as all the chit-chat, the addiction to smart phones, the separation of pupils in cliques are spot-on.
Try not to get irritated at the opening scene. Kayla is giving one of her Ann Landers’style advice to fellow teens, using terms like “you know” even more than the newscasters on CNN, “like” several times in a sentence, and “OK” so many times you may want to shake her up and say “Hey, you’re not OK, at least not yet.” She enjoys bursts of conversations from a variety of people such as Gabe (Jake Ryan), the aforementioned fellow with the hand-stands who challenges her to a breath-holding contest. She is afraid when a high-school junior (Daniel Zolghadri) asks her to remove her shirt just as he removed his. Though “not comfortable” in that situation as she explains, she privately looks forward to sending sexy pictures to her boyfriend, whenever she lands someone on her wave length. She enjoys a big breakthrough just her father does, when around a campfire, she realizes how lucky she is to have a dad like Mark who struggles with bringing up a girl without help from a partner.
The picture belongs to Elsie Fisher, a fifteen-year-old who has a remarkably long résumé in the TV and films business and who you may have seen before in “McFarland USA” or heard her voice in “Despicable Me.” This is a breakthrough performance that may well be remembered at end-year awards time and should prove a movie that can fill far more seats at the multiplex than did “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Andrew Wehde filmed the action in White Plains (upstate) New York.
Unrated. 94 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+