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How times change. Back in the day, a buzzy Sundance title about middle school was exemplified by Welcome to the Dollhouse, Todd Solondz’s misanthropic 1995 black comedy in which the 12-year-old protagonist suffers endless humiliations at the hands of her family and peers, culminating with a threat of rape. Over 20 years on, one of the most widely liked films of the fest this year is Eighth Grade, comedian-turned-writer-director Bo Burnham’s portrait of a shy kid desperately — if maladroitly — trying to make friends. Admittedly, there is a scene where a boy tries to pressure her into taking her top off, but she bravely says no, despite worries that the refusal may damage her popularity. It’s about the worst thing that happens to her in the story, and happily everything pretty much gets better after that.
This comparison is not meant to denigrate either film, both of which are very strong works, albeit in markedly different ways. But somehow the contrast between them says something about how the landscape has shifted over the years. Films about middle school aren’t as vicious and cruel as they used to be, perhaps because on the whole, and at the risk of making a massive overgeneralization, middle-school students aren’t as vicious as the used to be.
Outside of the shirt-removal request from that one sleazy high-school junior (Daniel Zolghadri), protagonist Kayla (the remarkable Elsie Fisher) isn’t bullied so much as just utterly ignored by her peers at the large, New York-state middle school she attends. That perhaps explains why her method of coping with loneliness is to make YouTube videos in her bedroom where she can project a more extroverted, ebullient version of herself. YouTube Kayla doles out surprisingly sound — if anodyne — advice that the real Kayla is too terrified to follow, like pretend you have confidence and that will somehow generate real confidence, and the like.
In practice, it doesn’t work. Begrudgingly invited to a pool party being thrown by wealthier classmate and mean-girl-in-the-making Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) only because Kennedy’s mother (Missy Yager) has the hots for Kayla’s dad Mark (Josh Hamilton), Kayla slinks to the side of the pool hoping not to be noticed. She talks to only one boy, Gabe (Jake Ryan), a sweet geek who wants to challenge her to a breath-holding contest, and then she tries to get her father to come pick her up early, even though the party is still in full swing.
At least before she goes she gets to chat very briefly with eighth-grade dreamboat Aiden (Luke Prael), who has mastered that too-cool-for-school, middle-distance stare, like a myopic Justin Bieber. Older viewers used to the humiliations of independent cinema in its earlier days will find themselves clenched in anticipation of the moment Aiden will say something cutting or cruel. But no, he just blandly points out the party is still going on, and before long Kayla is doing a karaoke number in the other room with the rest of the kids.
Burnham explained at a post-screening Q&A that a lot of the dialogue was more scripted than viewers might think, given how spontaneously and naturally Fisher delivers her lines. In that case, credit is abundantly due to both of them, because clearly hours of research watching teenage YouTubers has paid off for Burnham with an entirely credible use of teenspeak throughout, liberally salted with the phatic emphasizer “like,” and delivered with that mock-polished, TV-presenter cadence they all adopt. By way of contrast, Kayla can barely rouse herself to exchange more than grunts with her long-suffering single parent dad over dinner.
Seeing the two of them finally find a way to redefine their relationship as Kayla approaches high school is one of the sweetest aspects of the film, making this the kind of comedy that hipper parents might just be able to watch with their own offspring and enjoy. Because, ultimately, however much the film appears to be a scrappy-sweet, low-budget indie with few to no stars, apart from familiar-face Hamilton (and arguably supporting-player-from-Transparent Emily Robinson), it’s a slicker work than it looks, brimming with four-quadrant appeal, produced by Scott Rudin among others, and poised for distribution by A24 (who produced it). It’s not hard to predict that this is likely to be one of the Sundance commercial successes of the year — but a success more in the way Little Miss Sunshine was a success (although probably not on that scale) rather than the way Welcome to the Dollhouse was a success with critics, cinephiles and pretty much no one else.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production: An A24 production
Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Luke Prael, Catherine Oliviere, Nora Mullins, Gerald W. Jones, Missy Yager
Director/screenwriter: Bo Burnham
Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Lila Yacoub, Christopher Storer
Director of photography: Andrew Wehde
Production designer: Sam Lisenco
Costume designer: Mitchell Travers
Editor: Jennifer Lilly
Music: Anna Meredith
Music supervisor: Joe Rudge
Casting: Alison Jones, Meredith Tucker
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