Bo Burnham's winning 'Eighth Grade' features breakout performance by Elsie Fisher

Clint O'Connor
Akron Beacon Journal

"Eighth Grade" is so spot-on, so painstakingly realistic, you may think you've stumbled into a documentary. The credit goes to first-time writer-director Bo Burnham and to whoever the casting genius was who found Elsie Fisher to play lead character Kayla Day.

It's a kick when a director's vision is so precisely aligned with a performance. Burnham's script and Fisher's acting make "Eighth Grade" a compelling tale of a young girl struggling with the adolescent angst of her last few days in middle school.

Coming-of-age stories and movies about navigating the pratfalls of classrooms, mean teens, sexual urges, parties and pimples are nothing new. But Burnham offers a twist: Kayla's life exists in two realms.

Elsie Fisher stars in "Eighth Grade." The movie is playing at Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13.

Confident Kayla posts inspirational videos on YouTube. She offers sound advice to her fellow 13-year-olds about being yourself, trusting yourself, putting yourself out there and brushing off putdowns from negative jerks.

But once her laptop camera is clicked off, she becomes real-life Kayla: awkward, shy, clumsy, tongue-tied, a loner but not by choice. Clearly, she has never taken her own advice.

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As the school year winds down, the "class superlatives" are presented, and she wins the award she dreaded: Most Quiet.

We feel her pain when she arrives as a total outsider at a birthday pool party for one of the spoiled, popular girls, inevitably named Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere). Kennedy's mom made her invite Kayla, decidedly not a member of the in-crowd. Feeling miserable is one thing. Feeling miserable and having to squeeze into a bathing suit is another level of humiliation.

We feel her skin tingling whenever she sees her crush, Aiden (Luke Prael), the designated class cute guy who only seems interested in girls willing to text him nudies of themselves. Throbbing music erupts whenever she spies Aiden, accentuating the blood rushing to her head and that whooshing sound of her lungs emptying.

We also feel her hyper excitement-fear when an older girl, Olivia (Emily Robinson), who showed her around on high school shadow day, invites Kayla to the mall to hang out with some friends.

Fisher is fantastic. She's vulnerable, she's desperate. She's not just everygirl, she's everyperson. We're all in with her range of emotions and her split-screen existence between her smartphone- and laptop-centric worlds of Instagram, Snapchat and DMing. She's sullen and curt with her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton). Dinner table talk and car rides with dad are not pleasant, though he is loving and supporting, if a bit goofy. (There's no mom in her life and we never learn why.)

Part of Kayla's end-of-eighth-grade rituals include opening a "Time Capsule" — a shoebox filled with mementos and future predictions sent from her sixth-grade self. It's addressed to "The Coolest Girl in the World." What might be cute and joyful turns out to be depressing. The hopes, dreams and aspirations didn't quite pan out.

Burnham nicely captures the quirks and cadences of teen-speak. In that sense, "Eighth Grade" also serves as a nifty time capsule of 2018. We can all relate to Kayla's anxiety, though we all probably didn't have school-shooter-on-the-loose drills.

Of course, for Kayla and her classmates, the rifle-toting instructor's ominous warnings mean it's time to yawn, roll your eyes and check your phone.

Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Catherine Oliviere, Luke Prael
Directed by: Bo Burnham
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Rating: R for language and some sexual material