Kayla (Elsia Fisher) is a 13-year-old at the center of Bo Burnham's warm and touchingly real Eighth Grade. She hosts a Youtube series where she gives advice on "Being Yourself" and other self-help topics. In the videos, she is confident and speaks as someone who has it all figured out. In real life, Kayla can't take her own advice as she navigates the horror-filled transition from middle school to high school. Her videos are a tragic representation of the ways in which we often want to be people we are not. That feeling is never stronger than during adolescence.
Kayla lives with her dad (Josh Hamilton) who tries to connect but whom she often pushes away. Everything he does mortifies her and yet she feels his love. Their relationship and the duality of love and hate is one of the many things Eighth Grade gets so right. Kayla doesn't have many friends, her channel doesn't get many views, and her crush Aiden (Luke Prael) doesn't know who she is. When she gets invited to popular girl Kennedy's birthday swim party, it is because Kennedy's mom forces her to. Eighth grade is full of horrors and Burnham knows it. He shoots the pool scene like something out of Rosemary's Baby, all slow-motion close-ups while Kayla floats through the party unnoticed.
Burnham fills his film with stylistic flourishes like the pool scene. It is also full of details on what it is like to be a teenager today. There are several montages of internet use, selfie-taking, and carefully constructed comments on Instagram. While the film mostly keeps things light, funny and warm Burnham doesn't shy away from some threatening moments involving an encounter with a high school boy who tries to force Kayla into a lurid game of Truth or Dare. Ever grounded in the reality of this time in life, Eighth Grade veers from relatable to all too real as it follows the slight trajectory of Kayla moving from awkward and miserable to awkward and slightly less miserable. It wisely avoids an ending that washes away all the horrors that come before it.
At the center of the film is Elsia Fisher's wonderful performance. Performance even feels like the wrong way to describe what she does here because the whole thing feels so real and honest. She speaks just like a middle-schooler, full of "likes," "ums," and a general lack of control of the English language. Hamilton is equally fantastic as her father who tries to help but who can only worry for and love Kayla.
Burnham gets so much right here. The film is a must-see. The only knock this critic has against the film is the score and music choices. Rarely do either add to the film and in some cases, like an Enya song, they seem at odds with film's detailed and clear-eyed portrayal of middle-school.