For the third time in just four years, the adolescent social challenges of grade school are fully examined on the big-screen. In 2014, Richard Linklater’s 12-year journey “Boyhood” was nominated for six Academy Awards, earning Patricia Arquette the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Last year, “Lady Bird” surprised viewers with a blustering look inside the hallways of a Catholic high school and senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. Now comes “Eighth Grade,” depicting the social awkwardness of 13-year old Kayla Day in her formative days as she prepares for transition to high school.
A spectacular performance by newcomer Elsie Fisher absolutely dominates “Eighth Grade.” As Kayla, Fisher introduces us to the digital age inside our educational system and the social norms (and pressures) associated with the latest communication devices. Voted “Most Quiet” by her classmates, Kayla relies heavily on her self-promoting, motivational YouTube videos to help teens tackle their lack of confidence and issues with fitting in at school. And no one is more in need of heeding her own advice than Kayla herself.
Although somewhat slow at times, “Eighth Grade” meticulously illustrates the difficulties facing young teens with respect to a positive self-image while trying to break into the popular social cliques. The film looks and feels real. It never shies away from uncomfortable subject matter: seductive “Truth or Dare” revelations, manipulative sexting and even sexual techniques. But in the end, “Eighth Grade” is about one young girl’s dynamic relationships with her father and her peers.
First-time feature film director Bo Burnham (who also wrote the script) makes a strong arrival with this compelling and raw story. With a relatively unknown group of actors, Burnham (himself a former YouTube star turned comedian) gives us an honest, truthful peek at the drama found inside today’s middle schools. This journey by one girl represents the insecurities experienced by all of us at one time in our lives. The desire and need for acceptance, whether at home, school or work, is both powerful and crippling at times.
Parents of teenagers may leave this movie with a “So what?” perspective. The narrative too real and too close to home that one may feel the storyline less remarkable. Digging deeper, though, this snapshot of a girl’s grappling with the school’s popular crowd, a love interest and rapport with her father, makes this movie an instant cult classic for middle schoolers.
Last year moviegoers were all enamored with “Lady Bird” and the truthfulness it presented of high school life. “Eighth Grade” captures the same essence but with new teens and their challenges. Elsie Fisher’s performance is unshakable and the best so far this year, making her my first Oscar contender for Best Actress in 2018.