“Being yourself can be hard.”
That line is spoken by Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher (DESPICABLE ME) as she stares, with large eyes, into the audience from the screen. Kayla is recording a YouTube clip about how to survive junior high. She is trying to appear confident but it is clear she is, like most middle schoolers, awkward and unsure of herself.
Kayla is nearing the end of her time before high school and, despite her online bravado, feeling as if she's failed at junior high living. Relatively friendless and with an unreciprocated crush on a popular boy in her class who seems more preoccupied with making fart noises with his mouth than noticing her clumsy attempts at grabbing his attention. Her only real refuge is her barely noticed social media accounts and her home where her father, played with warmth by Josh Hamilton (DARK SKIES), tries in vain to connect with her through her distracted and confused state.
This is the premise for comedian Bo Burnham's surprisingly subtle and good-natured ode to the most awkward years of our lives, 8TH GRADE. Burnham's comedy persona is one of a person not quite comfortable in their own skin and he brings that sensibility fully to the film as we watch Kayla simply try to connect with other kids from her school and just not quite succeeding despite her best efforts.
There is real sincerity to the film that makes all of the interactions between Kayla and her peers feel honest and in that honesty, the film finds a lot of genuine humor and pathos. The audience I saw this with laughed heartily at every joke and comedically awkward moment but as I watched it unfold I was overtaken by the sincerity and realism of Fisher's performance. It does not feel at all like she is acting and due to that, it is very easy to get swept up in her journey, cringing as she does at her failures and reveling in even her smallest triumphs. There is a moment in the third act where she is alone in the back seat of a car with an older boy and she feels so completely and naturally out of her element that the tension you experience alongside her is nearly unbearable. It's an astounding performance and Burnham's confident, yet subdued directing (and the isolating electronic score by Anna Meredith) accentuates it in every scene.
The film has a few missteps though, mostly in how the adults are portrayed. It feels like Burnhams could not help but go a little broad with them in comparison to the children. There are scenes where adults try to use "hip" lingo, dance moves, or other things that feel like they belong in a much sillier comedy. Maybe though, the point is that is how these people appear to Kayla and her peers; oafs that just don't understand the stakes of being almost a high schooler. They don't see the victories and devastating defeats in the mundane, like the embarrassment of being given a pity invite to a pool party or the boldness of singing karaoke in front of your crush. We as the audience are allowed in though. To remember when the most important thing in the world was trying to just fit in and make it through another day.
8TH GRADE releases theatrically on July 13, 2018, from A24 Pictures.
It was screened as part of the 49th annual NASHVILLE FILM FESTIVAL (https://nashvillefilmfestival.org/)