Blu-ray, DVD, Digital copy; 2018; R for profanity and some sexual material; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play, iTunes (4K), Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: Commentary by Writer/Director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher
OLDER GENERATIONS who thought their middle-school years were tough are in for a rude awakening.
Writer/Director Bo Burnham avoids the clichés of violence, mass shooting drills and heavy drug use. The genius writer behind “The Big Sick” (2017) shows us the trauma of growing-up today that, thanks to social media, is more brutal than ever. His feature film directorial debut is an eye-opener.
It’s a big job being 13-year-old Kayla Day. She’s so busy trying to fit in and make friends among her peers there’s no time for other activities. No reading, art, music, movies – nothing. Life is a constant scroll through her cell phone and tablet, waiting for the text that never comes. It doesn’t stop her from reaching out. She knows all the self-help info about staying positive, smiling and the most current version of “fake it until you make it.” Kayla tapes her own daily pep talk, hoping to reach others. It’s actually more of a self-talk since no one replies to her cheery instructions on how to be popular.
Elsie Fisher, the voice of tomboy Agnes in the first two “Despicable Me” films, is a treasure. She conveys a perfect persona of vulnerability and strength, zits and all. It isn’t easy making friends in middle school. We absolutely agonize for her, feeling every brush-off and slight. Kayla suffers in silence when classmates vote her the “Most Quiet.” She’s not bullied, only ignored, which is almost as bad. But she pushes on despite every crushing misstep.
“Eighth Grade” is more experience-on screen than plot-driven. Kayla lives with her father, a single, divorced parent. Mark Day is played by Josh Hamilton of “Alive” (1993) and the “13 Reasons Why” series from Netflix. He does his best to support his anxious daughter, who, in typical teen behavior, alternates between taking him for granted and pushing him away. She can’t explain her sudden interest in bananas to him, a fruit she detests. But we know she’s just watched an online video on how to give a blow job. The video may have disgusted her, but she’s ready to try the techniques to get what she needs to fit in. Or what she thinks she needs.
The banana is thrown to the curb.
School, a birthday party and visit to a high school aren’t exactly disasters, but the experiences never come near to Kayla’s dreams. She’s yet to discover life doesn’t develop like a 25-minute sitcom plot or Lifetime movie, where lows transform into magical highs and a fabulous new beginning. But she’s smart and she’s learning and that’s what counts.
Digitally shot, “Eighth Grade” arrives on Blu-ray in a fine 1080p transfer (1.85:1 aspect ratio). It’s available on 4K on some streaming sites. Like the characters and story, Burnham and cinematographer Andrew Wehde, known mostly for documentaries and standup comedy, opt for a natural look. Color is complex and well saturated from muted to more vivid tones; black levels are consistently solid. Detail, contrast and depth are excellent throughout, and interior and exterior lighting is as convincing as any normal day or night.
Dialogue drives the six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It’s always clear so we can experience the complex highs and lows in Kayla’s life. Silence occasionally rings out as situations develop or fall apart, enhanced by ambient crowd scenes at schools, a mall and pool party. Scottish experimental composer Anna Meredith wrote the percussive, electronic score, which features some of her earlier work. This is her first film score.
There are five deleted scenes in addition to the commentary with Burnham and Fisher. “You’re Not Alone: Life in the ‘Eighth Grade’” is a near-15 minute making-of, with interviews from Burham and the cast. An animated music video highlights a selection from Meredith’s score.
Burham used his personal experience to write “Eighth Grade.” Another introvert, he made comic videos to help him through middle school. Like “The Big Sick,” his film is wholly original. Nothing plays as we expect, and performances from Fisher and Hamilton are spot-on.
Molly Ringwald, sweetheart of all those John Hughes’ coming-of-age movies in the ‘80s, says “Eighth Grade” is the most accurate portrayal of teenage life today. It might be a tough watch with your own eighth grader, but it’s a must-see for every adult. The learning curve never ends.
— Kay Reynolds