Eighth Grade

 

            Talk about a fresh voice.  Writer and Director Bo Burnham is all of 27.  The star is 15.  And she has all the genuine awkwardness of a true eighth grader.

            Kayla (Elsie Fisher) spends every moment she can on her phone.  Preferably, while wearing earplugs.  If she's at home, in her room, she's got her laptop open, as well.  Always plugged in.  But despite the dominance of social media in her life, she's actually socially awkward.  She doesn't seem to have any real friends, either male or female.  She lives with her Dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who's awkward and dorky in his own way, but also seems to be strangely without context.  We don't know anything about his work, or if he has any friends, or even dates.  He mentions once that Mom “left,” but we don't know if that means she died, or simply vacated the premises.  Either way, her absence is never really discussed.  As if she's not even missed.  That, too, seems unrealistic.

            But all that serves to emphasize the complete self-centeredness of Kayla.  She lives in her own little world.  She makes videos and posts them, usually about dealing with awkward social situations, which is ironic, but she has few “followers” anyway.  But we can't help but like Kayla, because we've all felt the insecurities she has, and have had to deal with the imperfections, as she has.  She gets pimples.  Her teeth are crooked.  She's a bit overweight, which is really evident when she makes an appearance at a neighbor's pool party, where all the other kids her age seem to have sleek, perfect, bodies, and are blissfully unaware of their own idyllic images.  Kayla does, however, finally meet a boy in the pool, who's just noticeably nerdy, wearing a snorkel mask and asking her to look at his handstand, when he can't even keep his legs straight.  We like Gabe (Jake Ryan) because he tries so hard to connect with her, which is so refreshing to her because seemingly everyone else is making no effort at all.

            Of course Kayla doesn't recognize right away that Gabe is well-suited for her, and she winds up getting in the car with a high school boy, and her internal alarms don't go off as they should when he invites her to play “Truth or Dare” in the back seat.  Thankfully, her virtue remains intact, but not necessarily her self-esteem.

            We like Kayla because she's so fallible in her inconsistencies.  She burns a box of memories she'd made for herself three years earlier, but then makes another box for her to open when she graduates from high school.  She fusses at her Dad---a lot---for his attempts to draw her into a conversation, but at a critical moment she just impulsively hugs him, which surprises him more than us.

            Kayla is self-effacing but never effusive.  She's withdrawn, but will occasionally say dumb things to people to try to draw herself out of her own shell.  We celebrate little moments of grace, like when the high school student she was assigned to “shadow” one day turns out to be a really caring, sweet individual who manages to help allay Kayla's natural nervousness about going to high school herself.  And maybe there we will have a sequel, where the awkward honesty might again uncomfortably fascinate us with its raw emotional teenage truth.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association