Photos | A24 / Twentieth Century Fox
From left: In “Eighth Grade,” Elsie Fisher stars as Kayla, a sensitive 13-year-old who isn’t the prettiest or most popular girl in school, desperate for acceptance and torn between wanting to grow up and wanting to remain a kid. A band of kids embark on an epic quest to thwart a medieval menace in “The Kid Who Would Be King.”
“Eighth Grade” is an instant classic in the canon of coming-of-age stories, a deceptively simple slice of life at a specific age in a specific time. Steeped in our current culture of the internet and timely details like the ubiquitous trauma of school shooting drills, first-time writer/director Bo Burnham has created something precise and evocative. The heartbreakingly realistic performance by Elsie Fisher is even better.
Fisher stars as eighth grader Kayla, a sensitive 13-year-old who isn’t the prettiest or most popular girl in school. She’s normal and acutely aware of it; she makes upbeat little YouTube advice videos that are really for herself. She tells viewers about how to have more self-confidence and how to be yourself and make friends, and she is the one who needs help with the issues.
The well-meaning person who wants to help her with these matters, but is not always the most adept, is her single dad, played by Josh Hamilton, who stared in such ‘90s indie gems as “Kicking and Screaming” and “The House of Yes.” Here, he is wonderful as a pure-hearted but ill-equipped male navigating some complex young-girl situations.
As we follow Kayla through a couple of typical days in her life, we see her desperation for acceptance and her own (beautifully depicted) negotiation between wanting to grow up and wanting to remain a kid. When a popular girl’s mom forces her daughter to invite Kayla to her birthday pool party, this tension is so well portrayed.
Kayla meets a delightfully sincere young man who wants to have a hold-your-breath-underwater contest; this sweet gentleman is the birthday girl’s cousin. He, too, is just a kid, and the contrast between him, Kayla and some of the more socially “successful” kids is really noteworthy.
If you have a kid this age or have ever been a kid this age — in other words, everyone — the experience will be almost unbearably moving and you will cry almost the whole time. Your own middle school experience might feed more than a bit into how emotional your reaction is and, oops, I’m crying again.
The drama of Kayla’s life is perfectly calibrated; nothing that seems overly significant on the outside happens. But we are shown so clearly her internal struggles, and her modest improvements are deeply satisfying and extremely believable. Writer/director Bo Burnham is only 28, a stand-up comedian who got his start making YouTube videos, yet somehow he has created a truly perceptive portrait of a 13-year-old female. His deep native experience with the internet clearly informs his understanding of contemporary youth, and he defers often to his young actors to collaborate on creating a realistic young girl — and succeeds.
The suspense created over a game of truth or dare rivals anything you will experience in a blockbuster action film. The heroism over having your photo taken in a bathing suit is far more recognizable to most of us anyway, and the film’s strength it is delicacy in presenting life’s most painful, normal moments. We’re all still growing up, and “Eighth Grade” resonates powerfully with memories and experiences deeply buried, recent and raw, or witnessed in our own adolescent offspring. It is a painful but worthwhile experience.
“Eighth Grade” is currently available to rent.