DRAMA; 1hr 33min
STARRING: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson
Virtual reality: Fisher
On camera, 13-year-old Kayla Day (Fisher) is all about staying motivated. “Be yourself and don’t care about whatever people think of you,” she sweetly advises almost nobody on her YouTube channel. That’s peachy in theory, but here’s the unassailable thing: Kayla is a little girl lost, living obsessively through the funhouse mirrors of an all-pervasive social media—her videos tell the stories she wishes were true. In reality, she’s painfully shy and struggling with the spotty, chubby, ugly-duckling phase of pretty. While her well-meaning single father, Mark (Hamilton), tries in vain to get through to her, Kayla is either so absorbed in the alternaverse of her phone or so far out on the fringes of her eighth-grade class it hurts to watch her fighting to fit in. “Give up!” you feel the urge to scream, at the same time praying she’ll continue to summon the strength to somehow not.
As the magnification of every adolescent insecurity, with the sunny exception of a connection she makes with an older, understanding high-school student (Robinson), Kayla’s final week of middle school is a confronting crash course in ostracism, sexism, naivete, anxiety, disappointment and self-castigating shame. Having weathered the cold, clenching sweat of anxiety himself, first-time feature director and comedian Bo Burnham is under no illusions about the trench warfare of American teenage life. With a corresponding wealth of understanding, artless newbie Fisher wades into the Gen Z breach, venturing to places that nobody—wounded bird or otherwise—would ever wish to visit. Eighth Grade is billed as a comic drama, but I never raised a smile. There’s nothing remotely funny about the casual cruelty of narcissism run amok.