By Nick Boyd
“Eighth Grade,” which stars relative newcomer Elsie Fisher as Kayla, is a heartfelt and relatable look at an eighth grader’s last week of school. Kayla, an introvert, has few friends and tries her best to simply blend in. This is emphasized, to her disappointment, when she wins a school award for ‘most quiet.’ On a regular basis, she posts YouTube tutorial videos to try to help others her age, such as how to put yourself out there or gain more confidence, but to her dismay, her YouTube channel has very few views. At times, she finds it somewhat difficult to follow her own advice. Her postings, however, give the viewer a glimpse into the kind of person she would like to be, compared with the actual awkward teenager within.
Josh Hamilton plays her well-meaning single dad Mark, who is very supportive of her, and wishes that they could be a little closer. The two of them, though, have a great bonding scene late at night after Kayla has returned home distraught after finding herself in a morally uncomfortable situation. This tense scene of a caring dad with his teenage daughter is sensitively and poignantly handled.
Kayla secretly has a crush on a popular, super confident classmate of hers named Aiden, who unbeknownst to her at first, is a philanderer and cares more about sexual acts than a girl’s feelings. In their first interaction at a pool party, Kayla struggles with the right words to say.
This is a movie very much reflective of the times with its focus on our heavy social media reliance, particularly among teens. Kayla posts on YouTube frequently, but she also escapes her angst with a smartphone, Tumblr, Buzzfeed, Snapchat, and a Twitter account. The picture’s writer and director, Bo Burnham (formerly a YouTube star himself), makes his film writing and directing debut as a Millennial in his 20’s – not that far removed from the main character in age.
The film’s sense of realism and teenage awkwardness is a definite strength, with the interactions the characters have, their mannerisms, and their technological dependence.
A pool birthday party for a popular female classmate of Kayla’s is one of the movie’s cringe-inducing highlights. Kayla is dreading going to the party, knowing it will be achingly difficult to fit in. Just as she is about to step into the pool area, the scene is perfectly set, with throbbing music playing in the background that only the audience can hear. Once she is actually in the pool, Kayla meets a cousin of the birthday girl named Gabe, a nerd who seems to actually care for Kayla. The two of them awkwardly begin to form some positive connection, which is comically well-played.
An even deeper connection that Kayla forms is on high-school shadow day, when she meets a high-schooler named Olivia, who takes her under her wing, and tries to calm her nerves about high-school. They bond that day and of course Kayla jumps at the chance when Olivia calls her to invite her to the mall to spend time with her and some of her high-school friends. Kayla cherishes this because it is one of the few meaningful relationships that she has and actually feels valued. Fisher as Kayla perfectly captures a teen’s insecurities and awkwardness with her spot-on performance.
Humorous and poignant, “Eighth Grade” takes us back to a time we can all relate to (and would rather forget) regardless of our social status. What is emphasized in this sweet coming-of-age film is that it is not always the big moments that are the most meaningful, but rather the small, intimate ones.