Entering her final week of eighth grade, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) wants to be something of a YouTube star herself. She makes little videos in which she offers up basic life advice, even though very few people watch her productions. In the real world, however, Kayla doesn’t really get to put most of her theories into practice. She lives with her caring but often flustered single father (Josh Hamilton), but has practically no friends, even though she longs to be in with the cool crowd. There’s a boy she likes at school and a popular girl who invites Kayla — reluctantly, at her mom’s urging — to her pool party. Later, Kayla connects with a friendly high school freshman whom she’s been assigned to “shadow” as a form of advance orientation. Burnham doesn’t give any of these characters a prominent place in Kayla’s dramatic arc, however. I kept expecting one of them to demonstrate pettiness or betrayal or some other form of cruelty toward Kayla — or, conversely, for Kayla to turn around and humiliate herself in their presence.
But Eighth Grade rejects predictable plot points and instead lives on the electric edge of awkwardness and doubt that represents the middle school experience; you never quite know what’s going to happen to Kayla, and that feels right. The film earns its humor through familiarity, not shock. I found myself recognizing Kayla’s all-too-real anxiety and discomfort, but I could also identify with her father’s well-meaning helplessness. Among the standout scenes is a supremely hesitant monologue Hamilton delivers late in the film to Fisher, in which we can sense his character fumbling and fumbling to find the right words to say and then, shockingly, finding them, surprising both himself and his offspring. It’s a low-key triumph of acting, writing and directing.
Over and over again, Burnham manages to lean into the discomfort and insecurity without ever going over the top. For one conversation between father and daughter, he positions each actor on opposite sides of the frame, which is a familiar device. But he also stages the scene so that they look like they’re trying to quietly and carefully drift out of the frame, which makes the scene both funnier and more tender. When Kayla gets a date with a boy — someone even more awkward than she is — Burnham foregrounds her in such a way that she looks like an Amazon compared to the young man: beautiful and even kind of powerful. And at that point, we may realize that this is how the boy sees her. It’s a profoundly human, yet subtle moment. This guy Burnham might have started out as a somewhat annoying YouTube star, but he is now first and foremost a filmmaker.