Kayla’s everyday concerns conspire against her, the way the typical posture-wrecking backpack of the graduating eighth-grader works against its owner’s nascent swagger. At that weird age, everything’s changing, above and below the neck. Meanness floats from host body to host body everywhere, sanctioned by the culture, facilitated by the vicious circles of social media. Life can be harsh, and half (or more) of any given classroom or social clique or hallway seems to be developmentally miles ahead of the other half.
“Eighth Grade” evokes all that, in a drum-tight, very effective hour and a half. It can fall prey to slick efficiency and well-meaning, heartfelt contrivance, as Burnham puts you through the wringer and ensures your empathetic excruciation in scene after scene. But Elsie Fisher is fantastically natural and heartbreaking as Kayla. She’s all the film really needs.
Burnham’s debut feature as writer-director knows well the agitating seductions of our online lives. Burnham’s rise to fame as a comic owed a lot to the internet, and lately he’s expressed real, reflective ambivalence about how it’s messing with kids’ self-images and empathetic impulses.
Kayla lives with her father (Josh Hamilton), whose wife, we hear at one point in the film, “left us.” A compulsive joker, Kayla’s dad is a little too relieved when his daughter gets invited to the birthday pool party of one of the cool kids, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere). This is on orders from Kennedy’s mother, and Kayla knows it.
Nonetheless, she goes to the party, enduring an anxiety attack of sorts in the bathroom and then turning weak in the knees at the sight of her crush (Luke Prael). In the water, she meets another, more approachable and voluble boy, Gabe (Jake Ryan). He promptly challenges Kayla to a breath-holding contest, which is the only thing that interrupts his patter.
Among other things, Burnham’s film is a story of sex, and all the mysterious terrors it represents. Hesitantly desperate for knowledge and for social acceptance, Kayla starts fibbing about her experience and, alone, Googling search terms including the phrase “oral sex.” More fruitfully, after a high school shadow day, she’s invited to hang out at the mall with her sweet, supportive mentor (Emily Robinson) and her friends. These kids are four years older than Kayla, and she watches them, avidly, listening to every stupid, smart thing they say as if she were learning a foreign language.
This is where “Eighth Grade” is at its best: when it leaves its surefire, stereotype-dependent John Hughes instincts aside to focus on more interesting things. The movie’s full of them, some funny (the “first-hangout” quasi-date between Kayla and Gabe, over microwaved chicken strips and a variety of sauces), some harrowing (in one nighttime car scene, Kayla’s coerced to the brink of fooling around, uncomfortably, with a calculating older boy). Anna Meredith’s musical score adds a thick layer of electronica, which can feel intrusive.
But Burnham’s skill with his actors is remarkable. The writer-director captures the tetchy rhythms of teen-parent strife. “Text me when you’re here and DON’T COME INSIDE!” Kayla says, speaking in embarrassed, hushed tones by phone to her dad, looking for a quick rescue from the pool party ordeal. All she wants, at that point in Burnham’s film, is to fall back into the digital solace of makeup tutorials and a more forgiving, incremental discovery of the real her.
“You can’t be brave without being scared,” she says in one YouTube posting. The movie’s not about blithe ambiguity and mixed blessings, in the end, the way Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” was. (They’re different movies entirely, quite apart from the ages of their respective female protagonists.) “Eighth Grade” works you over, audience wincing followed by audience gratification, narrative tension followed by release, crises leading to just-in-time catharsis. Fisher taps into everything we need to believe in Kayla, often more deeply and subtly than her material does. The hesitations and insecurities feel utterly genuine, as does her inner and outer kindness.
I like the movie. I love the performance.