At the start of the awards season, there were the usual names on the tip sheet for the Best Actress Oscar contenders. Would Glenn Close finally win it after six rolls of the dice? Would Nicole Kidman ever win her second? Then, suddenly, a new name began to drift into the conversation, that of 15-year-old Elsie Fisher. Already something of a pro after 10 years in the business, Fisher is the star of the US sleeper hit Eighth Grade, a heart-melting study of teenage anxiety written and directed by YouTube comedian Bo Burnham. As eighth-grade pupil Kayla Day, she’s simply incredible: it’s hard to imagine an actress of any age willing to make herself so vulnerable, so exposed – let alone an unknown.
Like Burnham, Kayla is something of a YouTube star, but mostly in her own mind – no one watches her cute self-help tutorials, and so she’s really talking to herself when, in the film’s opening moments, she advises that, “Everything will work out if you’re just being yourself.” But who is Kayla Day? It’s a question she wrestles with as she prepares to make the tricky transition from middle school to high school, opening the time capsule her younger self made, filled with all kinds of juvenilia: ticket stubs, a Justin Bieber sticker, a baseball, and a Spongebob Squarepants USB stick with a breathless message from the girl she used to be. Her puzzled gaze speaks volumes: it all seems so silly now.
“Elsie Fisher is simply incredible: it’s hard to imagine an actress of any age willing to make herself so vulnerable”
Kayla’s biggest fan, it seems, is her father Mark (Josh Hamilton), whose awkward attempts to be a friend rather than a parent are beautifully observed examples of the film’s subtle approach to cringe comedy. Kayla’s mother is never seen or mentioned, which only adds to the melancholy undercurrent, as father and daughter try clumsily to bond in her absence. Mark is proud of his daughter, but feels she needs to put herself “out there” – and the opportunity comes when a stuck-up schoolmate’s mother invites Kayla to her daughter’s pool party.
That this is pretty much the dramatic centrepoint of Burnham’s modest indie says a lot about his understanding of his subject: for an insecure teenager, any social event is a potential apocalypse, and this is no exception. Fisher plays the part of the outsider perfectly; a little spotty and a little overweight, Kayla stands out in her frumpy, lime-green one-piece. The hostess clearly doesn’t want her there, but Kayla styles it out, treating the whole uncomfortable experience as a chance to put her YouTube wisdom to the test.
Eighth Grade is full of lovely moments like this. The growing pains of youth are universal – overprotective dads, bitchy classmates, that unrequited first love – and delicately represented. And, for once, the internet isn’t presented as a moral danger, but more as a cacophonous jungle through which today’s kids must beat a path to find themselves – as well as others who might be like themselves – a journey Kayla takes with unwavering optimism. Films about tweendom have been made before, but few will capture those in-between years quite as excruciatingly and as movingly as this. Burnham may have written it that way, but Elsie Fisher brings it all to life. Forget the Gaga movie: this is where a real star is born.
Eighth Grade is out 26 April.