The film follows Kayla (the phenomenally superb Elsie Fisher), an insanely shy eighth grader, as she struggles through the last week of junior high school.
She doesn’t have many friends (or any, really); she thinks her dad is “weird; she’s voted “Most Quiet” among her peers; her Friday nights are spent perusing social media on her phone or laptop.
If it wasn’t for Burnham keeping the camera stationary, with Kayla at the center of the crowd shots during the school assembly, she would all but disappear.
The only time she really stands out is when she’s making videos for her online channel.
The film opens with Kayla addressing the camera while recording one of these digital displays of wisdom, this one covering the topic of “being yourself.”
It’s filled with an exorbitant number of “umm”s and “like”s, but it also shows a happy, confident, chatty young woman insisting that “everything will work out if you’re just being yourself.”
That’s good advice, especially in a time when the internet and social media tend to dictate what kids think they should do and who they think they should be.
Check out those shots when Kayla’s scrolling through social media feeds – the way her face reflects in the images she’s seeing, and how her eyes line up in perfect registration with the photos she’s viewing on Instagram and Twitter. It’s a constant tug-of-war, allowing for arbitrary comparisons that lead to unrealistic expectations.
“Eighth Grade” marks Burnham’s feature film debut behind the camera, but watching this flick you’d never know it.
His faming and shot selections deftly express Kayla’s persistent social awkwardness and embarrassment; every bit of her uneasiness is obvious thanks to Burnham’s vision and execution.
His use of jumpy camera and quick cuts during Kayla’s pre-swimsuit panic attack allows us to feel her anxiety as the whirlwind of images sends our senses into overdrive.
The tracking shots – up to the front door at Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) house, through the hallways at school, among the swarms of popular kids at a pool party – lets us to not only watch her hesitation, but they’re sort of interactive, at times putting us in her shoes and her mindset.
There’s really no better way to show discomfort than with awkward silence, tight shots and long takes, and Burnham utilizes those to next-level expertise: Kayla’s dinner table conversation with her dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton); trying to impress her crush, Aiden (Luke Prael), during an active-shooter drill; the gift opening scene at Kennedy’s party.
But nothing will make you cringe more than Kayla’s ride home from the mall. Burnham holds the shots on Kayla so long that your mind will race, and the anticipation will have you holding your breath and begging for resolve.
Fisher is an absolute marvel. She’s the eager and observant wallflower who so desperately wants to be somebody. You’ll want to reach through the screen and give her a hug.
As Kayla, Fisher is at times naively funny (the banana?), charmingly pitiful, and boldly assertive. But she’s always very real.
And Hamilton is a fantastically nerdy dad. His confused reactions to Kayla’s comments and requests are spot on, and that backyard bonfire scene might be the one of the most precious moments in recent cinematic memory.
“Eighth Grade” is one of my favorite movies this year.
It’s honest and faithful and delicate. It’ll put you on edge. It’ll break your heart. It’ll make you smile. And it’s worth every emotion.
You have just enjoyed the insights of Movie Addict Mel, a cinema dork and conversational writer. Follow her on Twitter @movieaddictmel, and “like” her Facebook page www.facebook.com/movieaddictmel. You also can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.