Comedian Bo Burnham Dazzles With Filmmaking Debut "Eighth Grade"

At the end of comedian Bo Burnham’s last special – which may very well turn out to be his last special – the then 25-year-old wunderkind confronted his demons in a Kanye West-inspired musical composition about Pringles, burritos, and his complicated relationship with his fans. The seven-minute piece was at once hilarious and haunting, a stunning conclusion to his steady rise from smarmy, teenaged YouTube star to generational talent. After the special released to Netflix, his Twitter account immediately fell silent, his bio broadcasting a curt “Nothing for now.”

Just over two years later, Burnham is back, but not onstage. He returns as an improbably fully formed writer-director, making his feature length debut with seriocomedy “Eighth Grade.” It is, not totally surprisingly, genius.

Teenager Elsie Fisher stars as preternaturally awkward eighth-grader Kayla Day, the actress doing her part and then some in bringing Burnham’s first cinematic brainchild to life. The young performer got her break voicing Agnes in the first two “Despicable Me” films, but crucially hasn’t borne the burden of “child actor.” Her Kayla is, simply, Oscar-worthy, a sublimely honest and relatable take on a twenty-first century 14-year-old. Anything less than a healthy award-season run would be a farce.

Burnham frames his film with webcam videos of Kayla doling out assured advice on confidence and self-worth, the same things she struggles with in her daily life. Voted the most quiet in her class, her exuberant, inexplicable video sign-off “Gucci!” is bittersweet for her and us both because of the anguish and uncertainty hidden behind that bright smile.

In her final week of eighth grade, Kayla stands on the precipice of adulthood with but her dorky single dad (Josh Hamilton) and an iPhone-based social life in her corner. As Instagram starlets-in-waiting and Snapchat filters cast a late-night glow upon our protagonist, Burnham does the impossible. He breathes glorious new life into kitschy 1989 new age hit “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away).” Somehow Enya’s song is the perfect vehicle for Burnham’s tempered criticism of our popular culture and how we consume it. (The inclusion of a clip from “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” is no accident; the filmmaker has taken at least one not-so-subtle dig at the host in his act.)

All of these choices add up to an intentional docudrama feel that dovetails with Anna Meredith’s score to create a middle school “Koyaanisqatsi” effect; we feel everything, sometimes all at once, from Kayla’s stomach-churning attendance at a popular girl’s pool party to a new friend’s good intentions spiraling into something sinister. This is Burnham getting even more vulnerable than he ever did onstage, while also giving voice to the bubbling anxieties of teenage girls everywhere. It’s a juggling act that few veteran filmmakers could pull off. Bo makes it look as easy as taking a selfie.

Fisher’s performance isn’t the pic’s only knockout. Jake Ryan (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) makes a killing in less than ten minutes of screen time as Gabe, Kayla’s awkward male counterpart. A late-film scene featuring the two dining on Chicken McNuggets is dead-on in its depiction of sweetly stilted pubescent courtship, by turns being hysterically funny and bringing “Eighth Grade” and its raison d’être to a head.

Humor comes from pain, and pain from humor, an inescapable symbiosis that poetically captures the adolescent experience. Bo Burnham is an outlier in that he came of age on computer and television screens across America, but he proves here that that undoubtedly strange experience only made him savvier, made him more perceptive of just how terrible and wonderful and head-spinning the transformation from child to adult is. Now more than ever.

With the realism of “Boyhood” and without the affectedness of “Lady Bird,” “Eighth Grade” proves Burnham’s worth as a filmmaker just as he’s gotten started. In just over 90 minutes, he and Elsie Fisher evince, hand in hand, that they are genuine articles. That no matter the medium, Bo Burnham will thrive – on his own terms, of course. He’s made the best film of 2018 to date. Gucci!

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: July 13, 2018 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Bo Burnham
Screenwriter: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Jake Ryan, Emily Robinson, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Luke Prael, Catherine Oliviere, Nora Mullins, Greg Crowe, Missy Yager
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual material)