At one point or another, we’ve all felt awkward and alone. Begging to fit in. Middle school is ground zero of this phenomenon, where your education is often eclipsed by all the weird little things you’re learning about yourself, be it from actual experience or simply years of painful observations. The movie Eighth Grade, staring Elsie Fisher, is about these moments. Fisher plays Kayla Day, an awkward teenager who makes vlogs on YouTube where she spews self help advice on a range of topics, most notably “how to get yourself out there” or “how to be confident”, advice I feel even pretending to be qualified to give at that age demands some respect. But Kayla isn’t so much offering advice as she is trying desperately to understand it all herself.
At the helm of the Fisher household is Kayla’s single dad Mark, played to precision by Josh Hamilton. This dynamic struck a different nerve all together with me, triggered I suppose by my also being a father. The authenticity of the scenes between Mark and Kayla accentuates so perfectly the unease of their world. This lasted throughout the entire film. A scene toward the end had me suppressing tears of sadness and also a gripping sense of fear for what my wife and I can almost surely expect. The two have a “unique” bond, albeit painfully distant at times. There’s a moment during a family dinner where Kayla comes off as the villain in the relationship, though truthfully, makes sense. I mean, aren’t we all geared to be annoyed by our parents, and in turn, destined to annoy the piss out of our own kids? I’m inclined to say ‘yes.’
One of the most impressive things about Eighth Grade is its execution and handling of the subject matter. The cringe worthy moments we see Kayla endure are not uncomfortable merely due to shock value, but more so because it all feels so goddamn relatable. When we come across art like this, be it in film, literature or even a painting, what makes us recoil the most are the memories they evoke. Films like this not only invite us into their world, but make us confront our own in the process. The balancing act that director Bo Burnham achieves in his feature directorial debut is incredible. This movie was hilarious at the right moments, sad at the perfect ones and heartfelt at its most needed.
There were so many times I recalled my own experience from middle school while watching this movie. Sure, I am not a teenage girl. Trust me, I know. Nor was I equipped with the advantages or handicap (depending on how you look at it) of having Snapchat and Instagram to guide my way. But I was an awkward teenager nonetheless, aching to fit in. I tried to be cool. A little TOO hard at times. I did things so people would like me and if they didn’t, wondered why. That eventually changed once my confidence began to grow but it never happens how you imagine it will. And like Kayla, I too was very curious about my body.
I would daydream about what the touch of a girl might feel like. I won’t go into details of my first encounters with girls but I can tell you they were certainly not the most fluid of moments. They were embarrassing. But I learned from them. And it’s those very memories that made me root for Kayla even more, anticipating what the future has in store for her, which is exactly what great films do, make you think about a character’s journey far beyond what is shared on screen. I may be gushing. But it was difficult for me to find a flaw in this damn thing.
With social media being such a critical component of the grade school experience, it makes me wonder what this means for the growth of our own kids. I thought about this constantly. I didn’t have Facebook or even access to the internet when I attended middle school but that didn’t hinder my ability to relate to the characters in any way. If anything, it made me sympathize for them even more when considering the world social media has created for today’s youth. It’s like an impenetrable wave of over exposure that in a way has cheated our kids of gradual evolution. Friendships born from digital seeds rather than organic ones. Online acquaintances and emoji fist bumps. It’s a scary time for a kid to grown up in, on so many different levels.
What makes Eighth Grade so special is the hope it conveys in the fog of this uncertainty. In addition to the vlogs Kayla records for her audience, she makes short videos speaking to her future self which she tucks away in a time capsule. It depicts a young girl without a clue of what the future holds, excited for what it may.