Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day as she endures her last week of middle school. These last few years have been hell for her. Not because she’s bullied, though, but because she may as well be a ghost. No one talks to her.
In a rare instance of being seen, Kayla wins the class superlative for Most Quiet, which is not exactly a compliment. Her anxiety manifests as shyness—the loudest she gets at school is banging the cymbals together in band—so the recognition is more of an accusation than an award. High school will be better, she tells herself.
Kayla lives in an age when every social mistake is permanent. Her phone’s camera roll contains dozens of attempts at the same selfie. All virtually identical, but only one is perfect. A loner with self-esteem issues, she craves attention and affirmation, so she scrolls through infinite Instagram and Twitter timelines, where she’s less afraid to interact.
Like many introverted spirits, social media are Kayla’s outlets. Buzzfeed personality quizzes and YouTube makeup tutorials, too, play a part in her journey to figuring out her best self. Kayla also hosts her own YouTube vlog called Kayla’s Korner, recorded in the actual corner of her bedroom. Here she gives guru-style “tips and stuff” to her peers. Sadly, the views seldom reach double digits.
Cinematographer Andrew Wehde begins the film, amid a video on the topic of “Being Yourself,” with a zoomed-in extreme close-up of Kayla’s eyes. This intimately welcomes the audience into her world from the get-go, then the camera pulls back to reveal Kayla in a lit pocket within the vast blackened void of her bedroom, isolated. Via Kayla’s webcam, the audience is graced with more eye contact than almost anyone in the film.
Like her imagined viewership, she struggles with “How to Be Confident” and “Putting Yourself Out There,” and this tender vlog—presented as advice for others—really serves as her own light in the dark. Because how often do we give the advice that we need to hear ourselves? In that opening video, Kayla wears a shirt adorned with butterflies—a signifier for the change she’s hoping to undergo between middle school and high school, and also perhaps for the incessant butterflies she feels in public settings.
Early on, she attends a pool party and Jennifer Lilly, the film’s editor, cuts it together rather horrifically: images of exuberant teens shooting each other in water gun warfare, a kid turning his eyelids inside out, a girl crab-walking like the possessed Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist, and so on.
The sequence sells just how uncomfortable Kayla is as she warily navigates this nightmarish gauntlet in her attention-grabbing lime green swimsuit. She’s not the beloved cool kid she thought she’d be at this point in her life. These are the cool kids, and her invitation to this party was obligatory, forwarded to her because her dad did the host’s mom a favor.
Josh Hamilton is pitch perfect as Kayla’s supportive dad. Similarly to his daughter, Mark Day awkwardly tries to work out how to be the best he can be, as a single father. In a way, he’s growing up as well. He endearingly plods his way through parenthood, wanting to be there for his troubled daughter while also not being too there for a teen who yearns for independence, though sometimes he can’t help it.
He tells her at the dinner table, “I think you’re so cool. Maybe you just need to put yourself out there a little,” giving her the advice that she’ll go on to relay to others in Kayla’s Korner. Hamilton brings a paternal warmth and positive vibes to the story when it becomes heavy, because Eighth Grade certainly does not shy away from the perils of being an American teenager in 2018.
During an active shooter drill at school, a boy Kayla’s obsessed with casually asks her if she enjoys doing blowjobs (while theatre kids dramatically drop dead as a fake gunman feigns firing at them). She says yes, then instinctively looks up how to give a “good” one on YouTube. Later on, trapped in the back of a parked car, another boy insistently goads her through a few uncomfortable rounds of Truth or Dare. You can imagine where it goes.
Kayla’s terror is palatable, and Fisher captures every unbearable moment. Look, Elsie Fisher is unreal. She’s simply unbelievable. Hamilton and a few other notable supporting players aside, this is not an ensemble feature. This is Fisher’s film—and she carries it all the way through.
Eighth Grade is of course scripted, but her performance is so genuine, and her delivery is so fresh, you’d think the lines—liberally sprinkled with verbal fillers—were ripped straight from a trashy teen-centric reality show. And she utters them effortlessly.
Quite frankly, Elsie Fisher’s like’s put Jeff Goldblum’s uh’s to shame. Mature enough to layer complex emotions, and convey conflicting motivations with her whole self, yet young enough to have a firm grasp on the character, Fisher proves here that she’s a star on the rise.
Bo Burnham, in his directorial debut, manages to keep this film honest and grounded. Although it may be Elsie Fisher’s vehicle, Burnham steers it with confidence and empathy. Let’s face it, a lot of folks spend a lot of time looking at illuminated screens. For the introverted especially, social media is not a detriment but a tool.
For many of us, it’s a sole means of communication. And Kayla’s pain as she struggles to connect is tangible. Eighth Grade is not so much a referendum on modern culture as it is a heartfelt examination of it.