Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade (Photo: A24)
***1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Bo Burnham
STARS Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton
Hereditary was unsettling through its pervasive atmosphere of dread, while First Reformed was unnerving in its implications involving violence and vindication. Yet for a summer ’18 outing that truly gets under the skin while simultaneously wreaking havoc on our emotions and expectations, there’s Eighth Grade, an impressive indie effort set in that terrifying wasteland known as middle school.
Television and YouTube star Bo Burnham makes an impressive feature-film debut as the writer and director of Eighth Grade (as an actor, he’s appeared in small roles in such films as The Big Sick and Rough Night). Yet the real story here is the knockout central performance by 15-year-old Elsie Fisher — she’s cast as Kayla Day, an introverted student struggling to survive her last week of eighth grade before preparing for high school. Kayla has no friends and no self-esteem (despite posting inspirational videos on YouTube that are viewed by absolutely no one) – what she does have is a severe case of acne, a dependency on social media, and a well-meaning single dad (Josh Hamilton) who annoys rather than inspires her.
Eighth Grade hits upon the usual points we would expect from a film of this nature — mean girls, dreamy boys, and nerds of all stripes — but the movie is stripped of practically all artifice. Photographed in a manner that offers the actors no opportunities for reprieve or retreat, this is a raw and realistic movie, and viewers will be clenching their teeth each time they anticipate the worst for poor, withdrawn Kayla and breathing a sigh of relief every time something fortuitous breaks her way. And here you thought Avengers: Infinity War was the summer’s ultimate word on edge-of-your-seat entertainment.