Holiday movie review / ‘Eighth Grade’ (M) *** and a half

BO Burnham is a young (born 1990) comedian who burst on to the scene after posting YouTube videos of himself singing quirky songs while playing simple piano melodies.

Never heard of Bo Burnham? Neither had I until I saw his poignant, perceptive film about 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) coping with life, family and relationships in the final week of primary school.

“Eighth Grade” arrived on the summer cinema playlist without fanfare. It drew a bigger audience at its first Canberra screening than most of the other titles I had already reviewed. Sitting in front of me were two teenage girls who found much in it to provoke frequent bursts of giggling. I wish I knew why. I found it a serious exploration of a critical waypoint in the life of a girl seeking to understand what life was about without knowing how.

It’s a bravura live-action debut performance from Elsie Fisher whose age I haven’t been able to track down (she made her first TV commercial at age five and now has 25 acting credits on her CV). From her acne, I would guess it would be shortly after puberty, not quite full-blown adolescence. Whatever her age, she carries a 93-minute film with aplomb, reflecting Kayla’s insecurities with impressive self-assurance.

Burnham’s screenplay does not make it easy for Kayla. Much of the film involves her making YouTube videos that few others will bother to watch, exposing her anxieties about confidence and self image. She wants to be articulate but her mouth works quicker than her brain so that her diction is peppered with “um” and “er” and “you know”.

She’s a loner, with classmates choosing her as their quietest member. She doesn’t fuss over clothes. Burnham doesn’t do her any kindness by setting her in a single-parent home with a father (Josh Hamilton) who tries to help her cope with that awful life stage beset with changes to body and mind that, girls more than boys, we all must endure.

Perhaps she might have coped better with a mother on hand, but Burnham’s simply not going to let it happen that way.

With an estimated production cost of$US2 million, “Eighth Grade” has struck a chord at the box-office, beginning with a $US264,000 opening weekend in mid-July last year and grossing with $US13.5 million in the US by the end of September. You can read between the lines on those figures. It has a willing audience.

At Dendy

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