Teenage angst movies aren’t particularly high on my must see list, but “Eighth Grade” turns out to be the exception. Written and directed by Bo Burnham, it is lit up by a wonderful, ultra natural performance by Elsie Fisher. She stars as the troubled Kayla, who in her last week of eighth grade is desperately striving to find herself and shed the awkwardness that bedevils her every move as students talk about what’s cool.
Kayla’s personality comes alive when she is alone in her room posting advice videos, such as telling others how to be yourself. At such moments she is the opposite of the way she behaves among her peers. She is addicted to her smart phone and laptop, which becomes her world. She exasperates her dad, played with fatherly bewilderment by Josh Hamilton, exemplified in a dinner scene in which he can’t tear her away from her social media. (There is no mother in the film.)
Kayla, her face littered with pimples, moves awkwardly, and when she is pressed into going to a pool birthday party, she looks out of place in her conservative bathing suit among the other more sexily-clad girls. The gift that she brings is frowned upon by the birthday girl.
Kayla has her eyes on a boy who is supposed to be particularly cool, although he really looks rather silly as an imagined catch. In one scene with another boy, she is alone in the back seat of a car and in playing truth or dare, she chickens out when asked to remove her shirt. She is only too glad to escape, even if embarrassed to tears afterward.
But Kayla wants to learn. There is a funny scene in which she is watching a woman on YouTube talk about how to perform oral sex, the details of which turn her off. Yet she tries to practice with a banana in the kitchen when her father walks in.
Eventually there is a very sensitive scene in which she and her dad connect verbally and emotionally. Kayla is gradually getting to be the self she always wanted to be, exemplified when she tells off a few snobbish female classmates. It will be onward to high school, where presumably she will fare better.
Fisher is so extremely touching that one feels for her all the way. The environment that writer-director Burnham creates seems painfully real, from the way in which the students talk to one another (Kayla in her videos repeatedly uses “like” in every sentence), and the overall school atmosphere. The music accompaniment is savvy as it is used to accentuate the anxieties, as when Kayla focus on her dream boy or summons courage to march into the dreaded school social combat.
The film may make you hark back to personal experiences. When I was in school, there were plenty of tensions, but not fueled by smart phones and devastating social media, which makes everything more addictive than the process of getting up the nerve to pick up a telephone to make desired contact.
“Eighth Grade” is that rare teenage film that can really get through to an adult, as well as to today’s teenagers who may recognize the mirror images of their lives. An A24 release. Reviewed July 16, 2018.