There’s no single scene in which Elsie Fisher suddenly becomes awkward middle schooler Kayla in Bo Burnham’s feature directorial debut “Eighth Grade.” It’s there from the start, fully formed. Burnham’s film debuted at Sundance in January, where the timely (and timeless) story of Kayla’s final weeks in the unique hell of eighth grade captures the full spectrum of modern middle-school life. Fisher, who had just finished her own middle-school years when the project filmed in summer 2017, brings a natural veracity to the role — here’s an actual kid, playing a kid, and bringing all that fresh experience with her — but her performance isn’t a shallow aping of her own life.
Kayla’s initial introduction to the audience is a disarming one, a portent of the open and honest work to come. She stares straight into her computer, delivering a motivational speech about “being yourself” that she will upload to her YouTube channel, where it will languish alongside dozens of other cheery-faced pieces of footage that no one will ever bother to watch.
She ends her video, like all the others, with a single word: “Gucci.” It’s a cool-kid thing, hip slang that the youngsters are using these days, and in Kayla’s voice, it sounds terribly wrong. It hurts. Within mere minutes of “meeting” Kayla, Fisher has delivered not just important information about her character, but actual emotions and a glimpse at the personal history that will influence her future.
And yet, there’s a lightness there, a buoyancy; when Kayla tries to turn up her smile, it’s with all the hope in the world. Perhaps this will be the video that changes things, maybe this time people will care, there’s surely a breakthrough around the corner. Her optimism is infectious, if only because it’s the kind everyone — especially everyone who endured middle school — can remember feeling.
It’s evident from the start that this shy, sensitive, creative kid hasn’t caught many breaks over the past few years. It’s not that she’s bullied, it’s that she’s not noticed, thanks to a combination of her quiet personality and the deep self-absorption of her peers. Kayla’s happiest times are spent in the endless scroll of Instagram and Twitter and whatever else it is that teens are into these days, and she loses herself in the curated lives that everyone else seems to be living just a screen away.
Fisher taps into a zits-and-all experience — the actress has been candid about her excitement to see a teenage role in which her own acne wasn’t considered a detriment, but a plus — that reflects both the current climate and the enduring awfulness of being young. Kayla’s existence is dominated by the internet and texting and FOMO and the other now-common concerns exacerbated by social media, and Fisher brings such sensitivity and rawness to the part that it’s impossible not to love her.
While Fisher is able to make even scrolling on Kayla’s phone feel compelling, Burnham’s script gives the young actress plenty of bigger scenes. First, there’s a pool party, a popular-kids-only affair that Kayla is forced to endure; she vacillates between a full-bodied anxiety attack and pushing herself to sing karaoke in front of her slack-jawed peers. Fisher keeps a firm hold on the drama, and it’s never overwrought even as it might induce audience members who have been through similar experiences duck into their jackets and grip their seats. (Not that this writer would know anything about that.)
Later, Fisher and Burnham tackle a complicated sequence in which Kayla, glowing with happiness after spending an evening with some cool (and nice!) new high school friends, is put into an awkward position by an older boy. Like the pool party, it’s honest, not exploitative. Fisher is both mature enough to handle it and young enough to embody it. Like every other scene in the film, it sings with truth.
The internet, for all its weirdness, brought Burnham and Fisher together. “I wanted to talk about the internet and how I felt about it,” Burnham told IndieWire in July. “I was also doing a lot of stand-up and I was talking about my feelings, and most people that came up to me that understood what I was going through were 14-year-old, 15-year-old girls.” While searching for young actors on the internet, the filmmaker found an early interview featuring young Fisher, who is best known for her voice work on films like “Despicable Me” (she’s the one who yells, “IT’S SO FLUFFY!”) and series like “Masha and the Bear.”
When the pair met, it was instantaneous: she was Kayla. “She walked in and the lights came on and then the lights went off,” Burnham said. “The movie was alive when she read it and just dead every other time. Almost incoherent every other time. … Every other kid, it felt like they were playing Kayla and she felt like she was being Kayla, playing all the people Kayla wants to be, in every moment.”
It’s no surprise then that Burnham was eager for Fisher’s input, and the actress said she started improvising Kayla scenes even before she landed the part. “I would tell her all the time, ‘You know what this is like. I don’t. I don’t,” Burnham said. “‘I was never a 13-year-old girl, and I was never a 13-year-old in 2018. So show me, tell me.”
“Eighth Grade” is now available to rent and own on Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray, thanks to A24.