Unless you are actually a teenage girl facing the anxiety and angst of adolescence head on, chances are you have no idea what the experience is like in 2018. But if you wanted to get close to understanding, Eighth Grade is probably your best bet. It’s an honest, heartfelt and often-times cringe-worthy exploration of one girl’s last week of middle school, a place that hasn’t been very kind to her for the last three years.
At the center of the story is Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a socially awkward, 13-year-old girl who wants more than anything to show people she isn’t the shy, introvert everyone pegs her to be. Raised by her loving, single father (Josh Hamilton), who basically annoys her every time he opens his mouth, Kayla finds some solace on the internet when she posts YouTube videos where she gives advice to kids her age about how to be confident and “put yourself out there.”
These aren’t topics, of course, that Kayla is necessarily an expert to be speaking on. She gets tongue tied trying to talk to cute boys and has a panic attack at a pool party, but she is trying her best to step outside of her comfort zone and prove that there is an outgoing, happy-go-lucky person hiding underneath all those insecurities.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Bo Burnham, who got his start in the entertainment industry when he became YouTube famous himself in 2006 after posting comedy videos that went viral, Eighth Grade feels like it is coming from a place of pure love. At first glance, Burnham might not be the person who should be telling this story, but the authenticity, sincerity and dark humor flows from the narrative so naturally, one might surmise that Burnham could have been a teenage girl in a former life.
Of course, much of this realism comes from him working in congruence with the remarkable Fisher, whose past film credits include the first two Despicable Me movies and MacFarland, USA. Her performance is funny, adorable and purposefully clumsy and nervous, and there’s not a moment that goes by where you’re not rooting for Kayla to get whatever she wants out of life.
At a time when teens are inundated with limitless tools that keep them from making substantial connections with one another (when did an emoji replace actually telling someone how you feel?), Eighth Grade is a classic in the making. It might be a movie of its time (who knows what YouTube is going to look like in 30 years), but like the best that director John Hughes offered in the 1980s, Eighth Grade will span generations.