Adolescence isn't always an easy period of transition from childhood. In Eighth Grade, a teen girl struggles to find a sense of belonging as she deals with improving her social skills. Elsie Fisher stars as Kayla Day, a teen about to graduate from middle school. In a poll of her classmate, Kayla gets a most dubious honor - most quiet. That issue strikes a nerve in Kayla, who's been trying to address that issue in a series of vlogs almost nobody watches. She gets invited to a birthday pool party thrown by the popular Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) only at the urging of her mother. With few exceptions, Kayla keeps to herself, but she has fun when she participates. When she speaks, she meets Kennedy's cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan), who's more friendly than the birthday girl. She even speaks a little with the popular athlete Aiden (Luke Prael), on whom she has a crush.
In the days before school ends, Kayla participates in tour of the high school where she'll attend. Her student guide is Olivia (Emily Richardson), the kind of outgoing student Kayla wishes to be. Things go so well, Olivia invites Kayla to shop and hang out with her friends at the mall. Her dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) takes her there. and even lingers there until Kayla spies him and discretely asks him to go home. While the time at the mall is fine, Kayla finds herself feeling awkward as one of Olivia's friends drives her home. A game of Truth Or Dare gets a little too personal for Kayla's tastes. She worries that this incident might affect this new friendship that she has welcomed.
Eighth Grade marks the feature debut as director for Bo Burnham, who also wrote the script. Burnham first made his mark in entertainment as a stand-up comic who incorporates funny songs into his act. He has also done some acting, including roles in the 2017 movies Rough Night and The Big Sick. Here, though, Burnham creates a relatable portrait of a teen and her peers taking another step in their growth. Growth is one of Burnham's themes, as the eighth graders get back the time capsules they made when they were in sixth grade. The best thing about Burnham's story is that it's often non-judgmental and open-ended. Kayla does criticize a self-absorbed classmate at one point, but she makes a valid criticism of this person. Viewers can decide for themselves whether the bonds young Day makes will last or not as she prepares for life in secondary school. The movie compares favorably to the 2017 release Lady Bird, where a young woman makes the transition from high school to college. This is a coming-of-age story told very well.
Fisher is likely best known for her voice work as youngest sibling Agnes in the first two Despicable Me movies. Here, she gives a touching and unforced performance as Kayla, who wants to show she's more than just the quiet girl in her class. However, Kayla is a lot like her peers, unable to articulate her feelings beyond a few words. Eventually, she realizes the target audience for the words she means to serve as motivation is herself. She does, to some extent, put her words into action. Hamilton is also effective as Mark, the single parent who realizes that his role as a parent is changing. He can advise and provide for Kayla, but he lets her discover the world where she's headed for adulthood. For example, he respects Kayla's wishes when she makes a decision about what she'll do with her time capsule. Richardson also does nicely as Olivia, who provides a welcoming presence when others her age might still dismiss Kayla as a little kid.
Eighth Grade made me think about how I felt as I made the transition from grade school to high school. That time wasn't an easy time for me as I reflected on the world of the peers I knew, and the changes that were coming as we headed to ninth grade. Technology and styles will change, but the need to adjust remains constant. Kayla Day wishes to deal with graduation and high school in a positive way, though she has no idea how to accomplish that. That's fine, because life can unfold in countless good ways, and discovering who and what matter are just parts of the process. Graduation day simply paves the way for new challenges and new rewards.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Eighth Grade 3.5 stars. Getting ready for a new phase.
Eighth Grade trailer
© 2018 Pat Mills