Arts & Leisure

“Eighth Grade” is authentic and touching

ELSIE FISHER stars as Kayla in “Eighth Grade.”

By Jim Tortolano

Junior high (or middle school or intermediate school) can be hell on toast for a lot of people. Your body is changing and you’ve gone from the comfortable world of one teacher a year into the busy maelstrom of rushing from class to class.

And, of course, there are the cool kids, and there’s … you.

“Eighth Grade” is a small gem of a film about a girl in her last week of the term, Kayla (Elsie Fisher). For her, it’s turning out to be one of the most stressful periods in her time in puberty purgatory.

She’s one of those “in between” types. Not a beauty with every hair in place and the coolest (i.e., best-dressed, best-looking and most confident), but she’s not a dweeb, either.

In fact, in brains and creativity, she’s far above the crowd, but all of that might not count for much among 13-year-olds where acne and Twitter stats are far more important.

Much of the narrative of this film hangs on Kayla’s YouTube videos, in which she gives advice on topics such as how to seem confident. But deep down she knows she is offering guidance without experience, and she’s really an insecure, sad girl.

Her life takes an upturn when she is befriended by a high school girl, but that isn’t her crowd, either. She’s increasingly frustrated by the well-meaning but fumbling efforts of her divorced father (played by Josh Hamilton) to reassure her that everything will turn out right.

This is not a depressing film. It has its light and optimistic moments, too. Most tellingly, it’s an authentic glimpse into what it’s like to stand, uncertainly, on the edge of the Next Big Thing. Fisher is brilliant as Kayla, but the other real star is the unflinching honesty of this movie, which is written and directed deftly by Bo Burnham.

If you’ve ever been or parented an eighth-grader, you will find much to smile – and frown – about in this excellent story.

“Eighth Grade” is rated R for language and some sexuality.

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