Two titles in this year’s US Dramatic Competition category focused in particular on the coming-of-age process, albeit through two very different social environments. Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” tells of the travails of that pivotal middle school year, while Desiree Akhavan’s “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” focuses on a homosexuality conversion center in the 1990s.
In the same calendar year that made Oscar nominees out of Jordan Peele, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, fellow entertainer Bo Burnham continues to make the case that comedians can make for excellent filmmakers with his debut, “Eighth Grade.” Competing in this year’s US Dramatic category, the movie displays Burnham’s storytelling ability to captivate an audience through moments knowingly hilarious or sad, and a striking confidence with narrative. Following the likes of “Moonlight,” “Menashe” and “The Florida Project,” Burnham creates a universal story out of a very specific experience: that of being an eighth grade girl in the year 2018.
Newcomer Elsie Fisher excels with the responsibility that Burnham gives her, becoming immediately heartfelt as a loner in her own world of enthusiastically making inspirational YouTube videos that no one watches. She has no friends it seems, and is too shy to talk to a boy named Aiden (Luke Prael, comically full of himself). Kayla lives with her dad Mark (Josh Hamilton), and has grown apart from him as the stresses of middle school have piled on.
There is a control to Burnham’s story that makes it sing, as he takes us from one experience by Kayla to the next, without there being a larger goal than hoping she makes it to the last day of middle school. Whether or not you went to an awkward pool party to which you were reluctantly invited, or have spent hours staring at other people’s possibly happier lives on social media, “Eighth Grade” is defined by its truth to her emotional experience. Burnham even intentionally colors the movie with jokes that date the movie (including dabbing, Buzzfeed quizzes, the term “gucci” among others), but it works to create a specific and true environment, along with often being extremely funny.
That isn’t to say that “Eighth Grade” isn’t without its darkness, which, like in his stand-up, Burnham approaches with wit and confidence. He lets scenes play out uncomfortably, whether it’s funny (Kayla’s learning about oral sex via YouTube) or scary (Kayla being pressured by a high school senior in a scene that further complicates the film’s tone). Using precision in dialogue, tone and character, Burnham is able to make unique comedy about things that have been normalized in 2018, like school shooting drills and the toxic wave of fake-woke dudes.
Burnham’s storytelling is enhanced by a quickly established directorial vision, which gives the film an energy itself. The synth-pop score by Anna Meredith elevates Kayla’s world just slightly, and the camerawork keeps its comedy visual, like when showing her interactions on Instagram or trailing behind her while going to the pool party, a la Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler.” His comedic vision expands to his work with extras, who provide some of the film's best jokes with off-screen voices or aside images of middle schoolers being their ruthless, goofy selves. While placing Fisher firmly into such an atmosphere, he offers so many sharp pings back to the strange behaviors of trying to survive adolescence.
“Eighth Grade” is a fresh comedy that truly pops and captivates. Its only real set-back is that it’s not as wise as it is sharp, with Kayla (and her father, in a great, subdued heart-to-heart scene) ultimately sharing life lessons that are fairly elementary. Still, Burnham’s accomplished debut offers plenty for viewers of all ages, along with a filmmaking vision that is well beyond many of his comedy peers.
Based on the novel Emily M. Danforth, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” focuses on a place that is a sad reality, despite its absurdity: religious gay conversion camps, where people learn to not like themselves or the love that makes them truly happy. Co-writer/director Desiree Akhavan takes an observational approach to this story, focusing on different members of the camp and their own willingness.
Our surrogate into this world is Chloe Grace Moretz’s titular character, who has been brought to the camp after being seen hooking up with a female friend (Quinn Shephard). Caught up in the cultural shame of it, she has less of a resistance to it than others. She makes friends with the two most rebellious members of the camp, Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), but also feels the pressure from superiors like the converted Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) and his sister, Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle, in another noteworthy Sundance 2018 performance).
As these two duos offer juxtaposing influences, one more true to themselves than the other, Cameron is stuck in the middle between them. This causes the story to feel inert, as it captures a specific place and its inhabitants, but the stakes about Cameron's life seem not as stressful as they should be. Yet while the story thinks this is all ridiculous from the beginning, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” has a shining lack of a mean-spirited approach. The way that people talk about their repressions, like Reverend Rick and his story of being “rescued from a gay bar by parishioners who noticed his car,” can make for comic relief. But we’re not laughing at the characters who all prove to have something more going on under the surface. The people in this story are flesh-and-blood examples of a tragic emotional Stockholm Syndrome that should not be. I just wish the story did more with them, instead of just reminding that such complicated and lovely souls exist.