When we first meet Kayla Day, the introverted but indomitable protagonist of the film “Eighth Grade,” she’s delivering a YouTube tutorial, one of a series she’s been working on that deal with such perennial adolescent vexations as confidence and self-esteem.
Today’s lesson is on “being yourself” and, in a painfully tight and pixelated close-up, Kayla explains why that’s a good and even necessary thing, even though, uhm, you know, like, people suck and evil exists. “You just have to ignore them,” Kayla concludes, the camera having pulled back enough for the audience to understand that this pep talk, like all the others, is more intended for herself than her nonexistent audience.
Portrayed in a raw, radiantly generous performance by Elsie Fisher, Kayla joins the pantheon of great teenage heroines, from the aggressively dorky Dawn Weiner of “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and Lindsay Weir of “Freaks and Geeks” to the eponymous leading ladies of “Little Miss Sunshine” and last year’s “Lady Bird.” As conceived by writer-director Bo Burnham – making a note-perfect debut here – Kayla is both of a piece with the comedy-of-mortification that animated those coming-of-age stories, and supremely apart from it: Thanks to Burnham’s exuberant, alert writing and Fisher’s masterful command of vulnerability, anxiety, resilience and steadfast self-belief, Kayla emerges as an icon of her own – just by being herself.
“Eighth Grade” takes place during the last week of middle school, as the pimply, perpetually slouching Kayla says goodbye to her childhood and warily takes the next steps toward bona fide teenagerdom: In the course of an eventful few days, she’s put through all manner of tests, both literal and figurative, 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 hovering mother hen, 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 crush, an oblivious, sleepy-eyed fox named Aiden (Luke Prael, channeling his best Timothée Chalamet monotone).
If Kayla is desperate to connect with her peers, her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), is just as desperate to connect with her: “Eighth Grade” never makes it entirely clear why Mark is a single dad, but that’s OK. The movie, which is full of laugh-out-loud scenes of kids trying to act like adults and adults trying to act chill, is especially amusing when it comes to the bumbling efforts of Mark, who loves his daughter unconditionally – even when she’s tuning him out with her ear buds or compulsively checking her phone during dinner.
Burnham made his name as an amateur comedian on YouTube, which makes it both surprising but somehow appropriate that “Eighth Grade” is so astute about the pleasures and dangers of social media. Although it made him a star, Burnham is clearly conflicted about the emotional effects of the constant comparisons, competitions and invidious voyeurism young people are subjecting themselves to nearly all day long. And he gets the subjective experience right. When Kayla is flicking through Instagram or making one of her videos, the camera comes in close, the music swelling. We’re inside her head, the pitiless world outside has ceased to exist and we’re as relieved as she is.
In many ways, “Eighth Grade” isn’t a coming-of-age story but a study in the tyranny of influence and social panic (Burnham reportedly suffers from anxiety himself). But it’s also a compassionate and sneakily effective portrait of its antidote. As painful as Kayla’s isolation is, as cringe-y it is when she’s rejected, she’s never truly abandoned in a film that ultimately rejects dwelling on cruelty, choosing instead to reward the character and the audience with moments of genuine kindness, and finally pulling the lens all the way back to remind us that “Eighth Grade,” like the rite of passage it chronicles, is merely a moment in time.
Kayla might be lonely and miserable, but she’s far from hopeless: As an avatar for selfhood – not as a fixed point or a performative act, but as a state of constant becoming – she’s already on the move. And she’s a thing of sheer beauty.
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