Eighth Grade is a crystallisation of female adolescent angst. Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is sexually curious but unable to do anything about it. She seeks friendship but lacks the confidence to make the connections. She’s acutely aware of her body, her shyness, her differentness. And two things make us cringingly aware of them too. One is the deeply sensitive treatment by first-time writer/director Bo Burnham (a YouTube star-cum-comedian). And the other is the astonishingly vulnerable performance by the 15 year old Fisher.
Kayla keeps her insecurities to herself, instead projecting her ideal self through YouTube advice videos – Being Yourself, Putting Yourself Out There, etc. But even in the videos, Fisher is sophisticated enough to reveal her anxious core in small ways. When her guard is down, it is the honesty of grimaces, groans, sighs and furtive glances – longingly towards the boy she likes (handsome, but ridiculous), feverishly towards the blow-job tutorial video (way too real), or admiringly towards her high school role model Olivia (an explosion of love and joy from Emily Robinson, who also made an appearance in 2018’s Private Life). Kayla’s portal to the world is social media, an unreliable narrator that clearly heightens her anxiety and longings. Of course, it does the same to most of us. Eighth Grade could be a way of aiming a spotlight at adulthood in the new millennium.
It’s ultimately a small film, as it is a short time in Kayla’s life, but like the best teen films, the stakes feel real. For someone that age, social issues ARE life and death. They matter. For anyone who has ever been an insecure teenager, Eighth Grade will effortlessly sweep you along with Kayla’s misadventures. For me, the cinema soundscape was peppered with little audience outbursts – “No! Don’t go to that party!” or in a particularly fraught scene – “No, don’t go alone in the car with that boy!”. All in all, the mood is cathartic, lightly skimming from laughter to tears and back again like a good therapy session.
Although it’s gained some awards acknowledgment – there was a Golden Globe nomination for Fisher – Eighth Grade is too unassuming for big prestige reaction like the Oscars. And that’s exactly as it should be. Much like Kayla’s devoted father (Josh Hamilton), it’s content to wait for its moment. And then with open arms it’ll fill you up with all the comfort and reassurance you’ve been needing. The metaphor’s failing, but you get the idea.
Eighth Grade is out in limited release.