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D: Bo Burnham / 94m

Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Luke Prael, Catherine Oliviere

For Kayla Day (Fisher), coming to the end of eighth grade and leaving middle school should be a cause for celebration. But Kayla has a bunch of personal issues to contend with: she posts self-help videos on YouTube that hardly anyone watches, she’s naïve about boys but wants a boyfriend, her classmates give her a “Most Quiet” award, her dad (Hamilton) doesn’t understand how important social media is to her, and despite her best efforts, she’s never been able to fit in with the “regular” crowd let alone those girls thought of as most popular. A surprise invitation to the birthday party of one of those popular girls leads Kayla to attempt taking some of her own video advice and be more confident and take more chances. But even though she does so, things don’t automatically change, and it’s not until she attends a high school shadow day and meets twelfth grader Olivia (Robinson), that her efforts begin to pay off. Another invitation, this time to spend the evening with Olivia and some of her friends, leads to a moment of self-awareness that causes Kayla to reassess everything about her life, and what’s truly important to her…

Movies about the perils of being a high school student in the US are practically ten a penny, with every variation on the theme pretty well exhausted by now, but there are few that examine the perils of middle school. And of the few that are out there – e.g. the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Jessica Darling’s It List (2016) – none are as astutely handled or feel as authentic as Eighth Grade. First-time writer/director Bo Burnham has obviously done his homework, as he doesn’t strike one false note throughout the entire movie, from the dialogue to the exploration of Kayla’s anxiety, to the pervasive nature of social media, and the way in which peer pressure can lead to young people making ill-informed decisions in order to “fit in”. Burnham also presents Kayla’s relationship with her dad (a single parent doing his best since his wife left them both) as a convincing mix of adversity and co-dependency, their exhanges never working out the way either one of them wants them to. But the bulk of the movie examines Kayla’s efforts to establish herself as someone worth knowing, even as she strays far away from who she truly is.

One of the successes of Eighth Grade is that if you’re the age the movie depicts, the chances are that you’ll identify with the characters and the situations they find themelves in. Male or female, Kayla’s anxiety and insecurities are very relatable, from being seen at the party in an unflattering lime green swimsuit, to admitting to the boy she has a crush on that she has “dirty” pictures of herself on her phone in the hope that he’ll be interested in her. Kayla’s naïvety and inexperience lead her into some unpleasant situations, none more so than a backseat game of Truth or Dare that is as uncomfortable to watch as it is awkward and manipulative. Burnham is often uncompromisingly honest in his depictions of the lives of middle schoolers, and he doesn’t sugar coat the real life consequences that some ill-advised choices can have. This approach is aided by a terrific, nuanced performance from Fisher, who incorporates some of her own tics and behaviours into playing Kayla, and in doing so, is able to make the character entirely credible and sympathetic. She’s the movie’s ace in the hole, and interprets Burnham’s script as if she were Kayla herself – and who’s to say in some ways she isn’t?

Rating: 9/10 – an unexpectedly genuine examination of teen life that is able to resonate with people of all ages, Eighth Grade is a triumph: funny, knowing, sincere, poignant, affecting, and bracingly honest; with a standout performance from Fisher, and a script that’s unwilling to provide any obvious or disingenuous answers – but which does offer hope for Kayla instead – this is something to recommend to anyone who’s about to turn thirteen.

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