‘Eighth Grade’ probes adolescent anxiety in the digital age

Elsie Fisher is heart-shattering in her portrayal of Kayla Day, a shy YouTuber navigating the hellscape of her titular time period.

At first, the idea of a movie being made about an awkward girl in junior high by a comedian who is widely known from YouTube sounded strange. Then I thought about how director Bo Burnham started out just like the kids in his movie: young, nervous, embarrassing and constantly posting all of it into the endless void of internet. It turns out he does know a thing or two about coming of age in a digitized society as well as the resulting side-effects such as attention deficits, low self-esteem and anxiety.

There’s a simple scene midway through “Eighth Grade” that ends on an image which convinced me of Burnham's directing ability as well as his depiction of the time period. The shot begins as a medium close-up of Elsie Fisher and reverse zooms to reveal the slow-mo ruckus of a pool party that awaits her. Set to the pounding of Anna Meredith’s electronic score, it effectively induced a wave of panic I thought I had hidden deep in the depths of my brain. It turns out I remember exactly what this fictionalized scenario feels like in real life - and that’s how a movie becomes more than a movie.

Protagonist Kayla Day is often shockingly relatable, a testament not only to Burnham’s winning script, but the aptitude of Fisher’s breakout performance. She somehow manages to be impressively calculative in voice and gesture yet genuinely unrefined in a way that is frank and resonant. The scenes featuring Josh Hamilton as her biggest fan and concerned father are particularly enjoyable to watch on screen; it’s always exciting to see new talent ushered in by veteran performers. This really is some of the best acting I’ve seen all year, something I hope voters keep in mind when positioning this movie in the post-”Lady Bird” awards circuit.

While Burnham’s script does draw obvious comparisons to Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age hit, his is free of nostalgia and feels right up to the minute in terms of culture. It’s a sleek 90-minute exploration of middle school life complete with selfies, pool parties, sex education and active shooter drills. There’s big and broad comedy throughout with just enough cringe to make anyone over the age of 13 feel relieved they aren’t going through this seminal experience in 2018. That’s the genius of this whole story; it’s about eighth graders and the weird changes they go through, but it's also about the world and the weird changes it’s going through.

This Sundance sensation is required viewing for any adolescents, but it’s also a must-see for all ages of moviegoers. School, work and even life can feel like a jungle at times, so I found myself connecting with Kayla in ways that any college kid could. The empathetic “Eighth Grade” is a much-needed reminder that confidence comes from within and sometimes all it takes is telling yourself over and over inside your head like Kayla does.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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