Newcomer Elsie Fisher achieves what must be the most profound and natural performance of the year as newly minted teen Kayla in comedian Bo Burnham's screenwriting and directorial debut, Eighth Grade. A smart and intimate overview of a young woman's waning middle school career, Burnham's opus is at turns sickly-sweet and moving, terrifying and nostalgic; painful and hysterical, but earnest in a simple yet powerful way.
Kayla is like any teen of today, a phone in her hand at all times and an overactive relationship with the internet, who tries to eke by unnoticed in a middle school full of familiar archetypes—the jocks and art kids, the band geeks and popular girls, the nerds and theater dweebs. But whereas most films focused on such an historically awkward era follow hyperactive sex drives or the tired popularity-at-all-costs thread, Burnham's story humanizes high school-aged kids while unpacking new-world dilemmas alongside age-old drama.
Kayla casts an introverted and awkward pall over everything, fearing pool parties, school politics and her crush while cultivating an online personality steeped in endearing naiveté, yet valuable as an emotional sounding board—even if practically nobody is watching. Fisher feels effortlessly authentic, an emotional and dimensional being who can shift from the thrill of new friends to the agony of self-loathing without missing a beat. Say what you will of the modern teen, but their world feels more complicated now. Burnham, it seems, understands their plight as well as some of the too-mature pitfalls they face as a generation that has always known the internet.
Frances Ha's Josh Hamilton shines as well as Kayla's single father, a man who aches to protect his daughter as she ventures deeper into the world, but ultimately trusts and understands her age-appropriate mood swings. He knows Kayla is cool, perhaps even ahead of her time, even if he does wind up doing embarrassing dad things now and then.
But Fisher is the draw here, and we slowly learn how strong she really is. Throughout Eighth Grade, she faces her fears with a steadfast resolve, speaking her mind and embracing her vulnerability despite her self-perceived shortcomings and flaws. Kayla is a modern-day hero—for any gender or lack thereof—perhaps because we can see ourselves in her coming of age story, or maybe just because she never strays too far from honesty with herself and those around her.
+Fisher is a revelation; eerily relatable
-Drags in places; soundtrack is annoying
Directed by Burnham
With Fisher and Day
Violet Crown, Regal, R, 93 min