For many people, the middle-school years are among the most awkward ones of growing up. The hormones, the changing bodies, the ever-moving social politics — they all combine to make that time one of emotional survival, even for those who appear to have all the confidence in the world.
As such, writer/director Bo Burnham couldn’t have picked a better subject for his debut film, Eighth Grade. It centers on Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who’s heading into the last week of 8th grade. Shy on the outside, Kayla is trying her best to be more outgoing, a side that comes out in a series of YouTube advice videos she records.
At school, though, she can barely summon the courage to look others in the face, much less speak to them. She must deal with ultra-popular girls who won’t give her the time of day, an unrequited crush on a boy, her dad being embarrassing, and the soul-crushing “honor” of being named the “Most Quiet” in her grade.
Burnham’s film not only gets right to the universal truths of what it’s like to be that age, but also feels so of-the-moment that you’ll be cringing in your seat at what kids are experiencing these days. Modern elements like ever-present cell phones, social media like Snapchat, and the numbing reality of school shooter drills are all a part of the film, adding layers of depth that didn’t exist even 10 years ago.
For many, especially parents, watching the film will be like watching a slow-motion car crash. You can’t bear to look, but you also can’t look away. That goes double when the film broaches sexuality on several occasions. Seeing how Elsie and others navigate waters that they shouldn’t even attempt to wade into until years later is excruciating, but also illuminating.
Fisher is no showbiz newbie — she was the voice of Agnes in the first two Despicable Me films and was Kevin Costner’s daughter in McFarland, USA — but this will likely be a breakout role for her. She makes you feel every inch of her emotional discomfort, leaving you aching to protect her. She may be playing someone her own age, but it’s a fully realized performance that ranks among the best of the year.
You can go ahead and put Eighth Grade into the pantheon of coming-of-age movies. Its unique focus, clear and heartfelt emotions, and near-perfect lead character make it required viewing for anyone who claims to love movies.