Eighth Grade (2018)
When we first meet Kayla Day, the sweet, smart, introverted protagonist of Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade, she’s delivering a YouTube tutorial. It’s a scene that’s as familiar to eighth graders today as it would be alien to their parents, one has to imagine: she’s telling her audience about the importance of being confident and having self-esteem, even as she seems to have none herself. You can’t be stopped by hurtful people, is her message for the day. “You just have to ignore them,” Kayla concludes, the camera having pulled back enough to show that this pep talk is more intended for herself than her nonexistent YouTube fans.
Eighth Grade takes place during the last week of middle school, as the slouchy, shy Kayla takes the next steps into full-fledged adolescence. In the course of an eventful few days, she’s put through all manner of (literal and metaphorical) tests, as she and her classmates participate in a live-shooter drill, accept their “superlative” awards (Kayla wins “Most Quiet”), throw pool parties, and take an orientation trip to their future high school. With the camera following Kayla like a helicopter parent, we watch as she tries (and mostly fails) to connect with her would-be friends — arriving at said party with a lame birthday present and making awkward small talk with her oblivious crush. Portrayed in a raw, radiantly generous performance by Elsie Fisher, Kayla joins the pantheon of great teenage heroines in coming-of-awkward-age comedies. Shades of Welcome to the Dollhouse, Little Miss Sunshine and last year’s Lady Bird suffuse this exuberant, vulnerable portrait of a young woman becoming herself by insisting on being herself, even as she opens herself up to the damage the world always inflicts on the earnest.