In most of Boston.com’s film review roundups, we try to give you a well-rounded look at both the good and bad of what critics are saying about a movie so that you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth seeing in theaters. In the case of “Eighth Grade,” the directorial debut of 27-year-old Hamilton native Bo Burnham, that task proves difficult.
The film, which follows an awkward 13-year-old named Kayla (Elsie Fisher) during her last week of middle school, had a 98 percent freshness rating on critical aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this article’s publication. Most of the positive reviews are outright raves rather than general endorsements, as well, with words like “marvelous” thrown around, and at least one critic naming “Eighth Grade” one of the best films of the year.
Of the more than 100 reviews collected by the site at publication time, only two are “rotten,” one of which comes from Armond White, a famously contrarian critic who was kicked out of the New York Film Critics Circle and is known for aggressively panning the most universally beloved films.
Here are some of the highlights from critic reviews of “Eighth Grade.”
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave “Eighth Grade” a perfect five stars out of five and called it “one of the best movies of the year.”
First-time filmmaker Bo Burnham – the 27-year-old, comedy-and-music dude from YouTube – has taken the tiniest details in the life of a 13-year-old girl moving through the digital age, filtered them through his own madly inventive headspace, and created the kind of movie that leaves you laughing hysterically or fighting back tears, often simultaneously.
In his three-and-a-half star review for The Boston Globe, Ty Burr praised both Burnham’s writing-directing effort and Fisher’s performance as Kayla, which he said is “a pretty brilliant piece of acting.”
Kayla is, in short, an American girl in the early decades of the 21st century, and writer-director Bo Burnham has captured her existence — hopes and fantasies and daily mortifications — with a precision that makes your heart die and get reborn with every scene. At times, “Eighth Grade” plays like a nature documentary about life and death on the savannas of suburbia.
David Sims of The Atlantic called Fisher’s performance “astonishing” and said he was “stunned” by how well Burnham directed the film.
It’s rare that teen movies have the kind of visual acuity and verve that Burnham achieves here. … In tackling the experiences of a 13-year-old, Burnham gave himself a genuine challenge for his first movie. With Eighth Grade, he’s not only met that challenge but also set a high bar for every future attempt.
Continuing the dual praise for Burnham and Fisher, Jake Coyle of the Associated Press described Fisher’s performance as “extraordinary,” and said that Burnham’s initial rise to fame through YouTube left him well-suited to tackle the film.
“Eighth Grade” is a revelation of both a remarkably natural young performer and a clever, sensitive young filmmaker. As if with battle scars from his youthful days consumed by social media, Burnham has returned from the Millennial trenches like a war reporter.
In a mostly positive review, Variety‘s Peter Debruge said that despite his young age, Burnham was one of the few directors at the Sundance Film Festival who had found his voice. But he also dinged Burnham for occasionally dabbling in clichés.
Though so much of “Eighth Grade” feels achingly honest, Burnham can’t help but fall back on a few of the stock coming-of-age-movie clichés: Kayla’s obsessed with a classmate named Aiden (Luke Prael), for whom the soundtrack swells and the world moves in slow-motion every time he appears, and she barely notices Gabe (Jake Ryan), the weird kid who wants more than naked selfies or a quick trip to third base from her.
Other than the aforementioned White, the sole “rotten” review collected by Rotten Tomatoes came from The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, who found that the protagonist wasn’t fully developed, and that Burnham’s script was overly sentimental.
Burnham’s eye for detail and nuance is keen, and several scenes—focussing on the sexual aggression that Kayla faces and the strength of character that she summons to resist it—have a tightly scripted tension, but he smothers the story in sentiment, stereotypes, and good intentions. Despite Fisher’s calm and vivid performance, Kayla remains merely a collection of traits.