It’s not often that I find myself rooting for a character as much as I did with Kayla Day in Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade. Played with vulnerable authenticity by newcomer Elsie Fisher, this is a coming-of-age story different from others we’ve seen before (The Edge of Seventeen is another recent winning example). What makes this rather unique is an occasional urgency of now as it explores social media fixation, anxiety, and even issues of consent that have dominated headlines over the past months.
Burnham is a comedian who made his mark online in YouTube videos. That’s what his main character is trying to do when we first meet her. Kayla is a shy thirteen year old who achieves the unfortunate distinction of being voted Most Quiet student. She’s about to graduate eighth grade and enter the awkward world of high school. Yet there’s still a bit of awkward middle school to go. Kayla posts faux inspirational streams that go mostly unseen where she offers the best advice she’s garnered at a young age. Not having many friends, Kayla’s daily interaction is with her kind single dad (Josh Hamilton, who has some fine moments).
Kayla is ready to branch out of her shell, but hasn’t figured out how. And there’s nothing about Fisher’s portrayal of her that feels the least bit fake. That’s a credit to the actress playing her and Burnham’s perceptive screenplay. One could think that’s a bit awkward itself coming from a male writer in his late twenties. However, Eighth Grade speaks to the uncomfortable nature we all found ourselves in back then. This includes a game of truth or dare with a senior boy that generates more suspense and heartache than expected.
The script includes some archetypes we anticipate in the genre. There’s the nerdy kid who crushes on Kayla. The heart-throb boy she crushes on who is only after one thing. Of course, there’s the popular girl who pays her zero attention. We’ve seen them often. We rarely see a depiction of a teen like Kayla with this much care and attention to detail. That’s what makes her character special and worth cheering for. No one is really watching Kayla at this point in her life, but we get the feeling she’ll be worth keeping an eye on as life goes on. Watching what Burnham does in showing her adolescent experience is well worth viewing.
***1/2 (out of four)