review Eighth Grade Eighth Grade Is a Mesmerizing Elsie Fisher is magnificent as a vulnerable teenager facing trouble at school and at home in Bo Burnham’s gripping drama
In all its boredom punctuated by sudden moments of unforgettable discomfort and horror, being a teenager could best be approached in a numb state. There is something anaesthetised, or at least tonally ambiguous in this gripping drama
about a teenage girl in the US about to leave eighth grade, the last stage of middle school
(the equivalent of the UK’s year nine, for 13- and 14-year-olds) and due to enter high school after the summer.
Elsie Fisher is absolutely outstanding in the role of Kayla Day, like an undiscovered Fanning sister: her smart,
observant performance gives the audience instant access to her vulnerabilities, hurt feelings and quiet determination.
Writer-director Bo Burnham has been known before this as a YouTuber and comic,
but this is not exactly a funny movie, nor does it fit the more solemn conventions of the coming-of-ager.
It appears to hover between two different high-school traditions. It has a bit in common with 90s comedies such as 10 Things
I Hate About You and Clueless: cliques, loneliness, excruciating single-dad incursions into your private space.
But in its weird, floating sense of detachment and alienation, as if witnessing the world while listening to music on earphones, there is a hint of dark movies such as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) or Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation (2018), in which we feel as if we are sleepwalking towards something truly horrible.
The striking thing about Kayla is that she herself is a YouTuber, but not the kind that makes the headlines.
Kayla’s earnest (but perfectly sensible, and not contemptible) videos are about how to boost your confidence
and self-esteem. Yet they are not a success. They have not gone viral, and she herself has not become
the kind of non-MSM online celebrity that fills her elders with envious bafflement. Being publicly online is just normal.
Kayla has a bit of a problem with her skin, but these spots miraculously vanish when you see her face on the computer screen.
It could be that the pixellation involved has camouflaged them, or that she has a pre-taping makeup regime.
(We see her watching makeup tutorials.) But Burnham does not deploy that discrepancy for ironic effect, and there are no
moments of dramatic hesitancy or self-doubt in her own tutorials.
Kayla lives alone with her dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) who seems almost too good to be true in his dorky well-meaning clumsiness, and Burnham interestingly defers the explanation as to his singleness. Mark has limited Kayla’s obsessive smartphone use at the dinner table to one evening a week, and he’s self-conscious about trying to make conversation
when she is exercising that prerogative. But Mark misjudges his parental responsibilities when it comes to taking Kayla to hang out with her friends at the mall, and he has a weird habit of coming into her bedroom in just pyjama bottoms last thing, to say goodnight. It creates an all-but-inaudible background hum of disquiet. Is something not quite right?
There are various official and unofficial rituals that Kayla has to go through as she finishes Eighth Grade. Burnham effectively puts us on alert for a Carrie-style catastrophe, but the movie’s effect lies in then upending or withdrawing this state of impending crisis.
Kayla has to endure, not a school shooting, but a school-shooting practice drill, which leads to a worryingly inappropriate and sexualised encounter with another boy. And it is all shot by cinematographer Andrew Wehde in a bright, clean, affectless way.
Always, Kayla is asked if she is “excited” about high school, and she knows that the polite, correct response is yes. But of course she can’t permit herself to be excited, and is smart enough to know that public displays of genuine excitement about that or anything else would be an incautious and presumptuous response. She is more anxious and uneasy.
One of the film’s most touching things is her discovery of a videoed message from her nine-year-old self
to her current self, and then her shooting a new video message, intended to be viewed by her 18-year-old self.
They are both full of upbeat, serious faith in the future, and very different from the imaginary letters to one’s own teenage
self that middle-aged newspaper columnists are sometimes asked to compose and that invariably go on about getting
a sense of humour – just the kind of condescension that any teenager would resent.
Fisher’s portrayal of Kayla’s life has such charm and unassuming decency.