From one of the guys in The Big Sick comes the most empathetic movie of the year. Seriously—even the kids who were mean in middle school will feel bad for Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher, the voice of Agnes from Despicable Me, though my kid will know her better as the English voice of Masha from the Russian import Masha and the Bear), thanks to writer-director Bo Burnham. While growing up has always been hard and middle school harder, the internet, social media, cell phones, etc. make it that much worse for today’s middle-schoolers.
Kayla’s last week of eighth grade is monumentally bad. Sure, she wins a superlative, but it’s “Most Quiet Girl,” which is more left-handed compliment than award. A popular girl has been forced by her mother to invite Kayla to her pool party because of Kayla’s nice, goofy dad (Josh Hamilton)—triple yikes! Even a victory during the high-school shadow day quickly turns to defeat. Poor, upbeat Kayla soldiers on with an unwatched vlog in which she attempts to inspire her peers with the lessons she has learned. Every moment of Kayla’s life is awkward; no wonder she—and many teens like her—escape to their phones for marathon sessions of “Fortnite” and Snapchat. In Eighth Grade, online life is so much easier, as cyberbullying seems to be the one modern crisis Kayla is lucky enough to avoid.
While Burnham’s script and direction provide a solid foundation for this empathetic dramedy, breakthrough star Fisher is responsible for realizing Burnham’s teen protagonist as a well-rounded human being, not a typical Hollywood version of a teenager. Her slouch is one of infinite defeat, and her acne is as visible as her attempts to hide it. Yet as the movie begins, she pushes on, still able to believe the inspirational quotes overcrowding her bathroom mirror with sticky notes, despite being nearer to the end of her middle-school purgatory than the beginning.
Despite uncool adults dabbing and abusing phrases like “lit”—or a single father so desperate for his daughter to be liked that he resorts to rather unpleasant measures, like talking to her at the dinner table (if Fisher is the movie’s big gun, Hamilton is its secret weapon)—Kayla keeps “putting herself out there.” Fisher is just the right amount of smart, pretty and hopeful to convey reality, not cinematic fantasy, which is as fitting a description of Eighth Grade as it is its star.