Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), the 13-year-old at the center of EIGHTH GRADE, is a teen with a YouTube channel. She has only a handful of followers, but the young girl wants to give others her pearls of wisdom. Kayla cajoles young girls, via self-shot videos filmed in her bedroom, to be themselves and act confident. Unfortunately, Kayla is hardly a role model. Instead, she’s utterly insecure and plagued with self-doubt. In other words, she’s entirely normal, like most other junior high girls who fret zealously over friends, school, and puberty. Such honesty in presenting a teenage girl makes writer/director Bo Burnham’s movie a superior coming-of-age story, and easily one of 2018’s very best films.
There have been many incredible coming-of-age sagas onscreen in the last few years, most notably LADY BIRD in 2017 and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN in 2016. The focus of EIGHTH GRADE is younger, taking place in junior high rather than high school, and its protagonist is not a bold girl like the characters that Saoirse Ronan and Hailee Steinfeld played. Instead, Kayla is excessively demure, quiet and tentative, a wholly reactive character. In almost every scene she enters, she does so with uncertain footsteps and a stammering voice. Kayla also fidgets and slouches as her eyes dart about, not quite knowing where to look. Even home is a challenge for her as Kayla’s intrusive widower father (Josh Hamilton) is continually buzzing about, worrying about her.
While he tries to understand her, Kayla attempts to overcome her fears. She wants to fit in and enjoy life, but she’s trying out different friends and attitudes like they’re items she’s trying on at the Gap. Navigating junior high school is less fun for her, and more an experiment, one that often finds her on edge, almost to the point of walking a tightrope. There’s a lot of pressure to make good grades, attract the right friends, and leave an impactful social media footprint. The fear of ostracization makes her second guess herself regularly, and her jitters are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious.
We can’t help but be amused by her misguided and unreciprocated crush on Aiden (Luke Prael), a preening, 80-lb. weakling wholly unworthy of her adoration. Her battle to be noticed, but not be notorious is also quite funny, especially when she’s singled out for an award in school, but it’s for the less than stellar title of “Most Quiet.” And when Kayla reluctantly agrees to attend the birthday party of ‘cool girl’ Olivia (Emily Robinson), her embarrassed efforts to wade into the girl’s backyard pool makes for delightful physical comedy.
Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day in EIGHTH GRADE.Burnham mines it all with a realism seldom seen in the genre. It feels authentic, lived in, almost like a documentary. It helps right off the bat that he casts kids who are age appropriate. His actors don’t have any of that fake Hollywood glamour or Disney Channel precociousness either. Burnham also writes teen dialogue in the way that kids actually speak, filled with plenty of awkward pauses and excessive “likes” and “ums.” It’s all recognizable, insightful, and funny as hell, even though Burnham seldom writes a punchline.
EIGHTH GRADE can be quite serious too, and Burnham creates pathos and drama just as effectively. It’s sad that Kayla and her father have so much trouble getting on the same wavelength. Additionally, Kayla’s ride home from the mall with an older male classmate almost devolves into disaster when he stops the car and tries to pressure her to remove her top. The specter of assault hangs over the scene for several excruciating moments, but thankfully, Burnham has written a heroine in Kayla who does display some very shrewd self-preservation skills. We laugh with her, cry with her, and even cheer her when she overcomes such obstacles.
Throughout it all, Fisher manages to give one of the most accomplished youth performances ever captured on film. Her ability to make all of Burnham’s written dialogue sound natural, even adlibbed, is an incredible accomplishment for such a young actor. (She was only 14 when the film was made.) The Oscars rarely find room on their Best Actress list for those under 18, but Fisher should be included if there is any justice this awards season.
Filmmaker Bo Burnham doing his stand-up comedy act.EIGHTH GRADE is just as extraordinary, telling its story episodically, with no big climax, and few set pieces. Kayla’s arc is achieved in baby steps as she learns from dozens and dozens of smaller experiences, not dissimilar to the educational journey of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson in Greta Gerwig’s stunning film with a similar story last year. In EIGHTH GRADE, the most significant lessons that Kayla learns are the limits of social media and the extent of true friendship. She also comes to understand that even dorky parents mean well, even if they can’t help but stalk you at the mall.
Interestingly, Burnham thrived in social media, making a name for himself on YouTube and throughout the web. He built up quite a following telling jokes, singing songs, and making short films. Now, at 27, he’s delivered a first feature that is as assured as those done by filmmakers twice his age. There’s an emotional directness to his work, a rare and raw realism like the indie cinema from the 60’s and 70’s. Burnham’s central character of Kayla ends EIGHTH GRADE still very much a work-in-progress. He, on the other hand, comes out as a fully-functioning artist who graduates with honors.