Fisher is fabulous in writer-director Burnham's poignant, sensitive exploration of the challenges of early adolescence in the age of social media and constant phone use. Burnham understands that middle school is the most awkward time in most kids' life and that the eighth grade in particular is a fragile transition year as young teens struggle with social status, puberty, and preparing for high school. Kayla knows she's considered one of the quietest girls in her class, and she's fine with that, because at home she records and uploads videos of herself talking about gaining more confidence, getting out of her comfort zone, and other self-help topics. Personally, her goals are pretty universal: She wants more friends, in particular one Best Friend, and a possible romance. But her social anxiety and earnest demeanor make it difficult for Kayla to relate to other teens, especially well-liked girls like Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), or Aiden (Luke Prael), the boy Kayla is crushing on, who's apparently only interested in girls who've gone past second base.
Eighth Grade is (thankfully) not as explicit as Thirteen, but it's nearly as heartbreaking for different reasons -- at least for parents of teens. Luckily the movie has a somewhat hopeful message, as Kayla recognizes that making a connection with her father and finding friendship are both possible, if not with the so-called popular kids she admires. The pain Kayla expresses is incredibly realistic, and it will squeeze adult audiences' hearts as they watch a young girl attempt to find her place in an unforgiving social environment. There's a wonderful "aha" moment when Kayla finds her voice, and the inner middle schooler in all of us will cheer for the shy girl who's willing to tell the truth to her peers: Don't front, it's OK to be grateful and kind and to have fun playing games with your family, and to not be in a rush to grow up before you're ready.