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Eighth Grade

“If there is hell, it was modeled after junior high school.” –Lewis Black

Eighth Grade begins with the teenaged Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) talking directly into the camera, recording a video for YouTube. It’s a barely-scripted rant that goes on for something like three minutes, drawn out like she’s getting paid every time she says “um”, “ah”, or “like whatever”, and she’s not saying anything but a bunch of empty cliches under all the awkward delivery. When Kayla talks about what it means to “be yourself”, it’s clearly obvious that she has no idea what she’s talking about.

The whole scene is awkward and yet somehow adorable. Underneath all the phoniness is a sincere cry for help, expressed in the only way she knows how. It perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film.

The movie unfolds over Kayla’s final week before graduating from middle school. So she’s truly in the middle of the middle. Of course it’s an awkward time for her, because that’s an awkward age for anyone. Kayla is quiet and withdrawn, a bundle of neuroses because she doesn’t know who or what she’s supposed to be. So of course she plays along with peer pressure, goes with the flow, and tries her best to be something she’s not. What makes it even worse is that Kayla’s mom ran out ages ago, and she doesn’t have any older siblings or trusted female role models who can help her through the harsh process of growing up.

However, like any modern teenager, she has social media. So it is that she’s able to interact with others on Instagram (Facebook is passe, apparently), go to YouTube for the answers to any question, etc. Yes, this means that Kayla and all her peers are closed off in their own online cocoons, but let’s be real — kids that age have always been closed off. At least now, they have some means of interacting with others in a secure and comfortable way.

Take Kayla’s YouTube videos, for example. They’re a perfectly valid way for Kayla to express herself and find herself, and it’s wonderful that she has that option when so many generations before her didn’t. Even so, the fact remains that her videos are crap and nobody watches them. Not that it really matters in the grand scheme of things, but of course Kayla is more interested in the views and Likes than in any kind of personal growth or artistic expression.

(Side note: This is the writing/directing debut of Bo Burnham, who primarily came to fame as a YouTube star. I was honestly disappointed to find that Bo was a male, but whatever — he does a fantastic job here.)

Moreover, Kayla’s online access is an unreliable substitute for the real interpersonal connections she can’t seem to build. It’s entirely possible that she has problems making friends because she only learned how to interact with others on social media and everyone’s too engrossed in their phones to talk in person. Moreover, it’s harmful and really kind of sad that Kayla has to go to freaking YouTube for sex advice.

Yes, the film goes there. There’s no actual nudity or sex, of course — not even anything implied — but there’s a lot of very explicit talk about sex.

This movie makes a very clear case for why teenagers need reliable sex education. Kayla has to figure all of this out without any help from her teachers or parents, and the movie clearly shows how deeply harmful that can be. It’s a taboo subject to talk about teens fooling around, but how can we expect them to do that with any degree of safety if we don’t talk about it?

Of course we all know that pedophilia is wrong. A legal adult should never have sex with anyone too young to know better, and that’s flat. But what if both parties are under 18? What if there’s an age difference, and how small does the age difference have to be? How are the rules different for teens, and what’s considered acceptable behavior?

Well, when one party clearly says “No, I don’t want to do this,” that’s a pretty big fucking clue. And when one party keeps pressuring the other for sex even after getting a firm denial, that’s a goddamn huge red flag.

Then again, we clearly see how the adults take such exorbitant pains in making sure the students are all prepared for an active shooter. And judging from the reactions of at least one student, the attempts at teaching how incredibly dangerous and terrifying the situation could possibly be have had absolutely no effect. On the one hand, it’s hard to teach kids who have no interest in learning. On the other hand, I’m sure that kids are considerably more interested in learning about sex than in learning about how stupid their hero fantasies are.

Which brings us to the parents and teachers involved (most especially Kayla’s dad, played by Josh Hamilton). Those adults who keep embarrassing themselves in their well-intentioned and ultimately futile attempts at connecting with the teens in their care. It’s a cruel irony that these adults genuinely want to be there for these teens, and they’re trying to help in every way they know how, but it’s borderline impossible when nobody — certainly not the teenagers themselves — can know what they need or want, and can’t articulate any decent cry for help. Moreover, teens have outgrown the need for validation from their parents — they need validation from their peers and from themselves.

Then of course there’s the unavoidable fact that these teens are caught in that awkward time when they’re not quite kids and not quite adults. How can anyone be sure how much help they really need? Yes, kids need protection, just as they might need encouragement to try new things, make new friends, etc. But at some point, kids grow into adults who need to do these things for themselves, and getting too intrusive can do more harm than good. So where’s that line?

Ultimately, the most important message of the film is that no matter how shitty things are now, there’s no telling what’s around the corner and every possibility that things will get better. This is especially true of those in middle school — everybody looks back on middle school as the worst years of their lives, which is really just another way of saying that everything got so much better since then. We all know the assholes who peaked in high school, and nobody likes them because they kept on sliding downhill for the forty or fifty years afterward. The movie leaves us with the message of “it gets better”, delivered in a sincere and heartfelt way that viewers of all ages can appreciate.

The film got stuck with an R rating, which means there’s a good chance that many eighth graders may never get the chance to see it. That said, as strange as it sounds, I don’t know if teenagers were ever the intended demographic for this one. Rather, this seems more like a movie for parents, siblings, and anyone else in a position to help any teenagers through this awkward phase in their lives. Ideally, this would be a movie for incoming high school freshmen to watch with their parents and trusted mentors so they can talk about it afterward — that would do a lot of good, I think.

Major kudos are due to the cast and crew — most especially Elsie Fisher and Bo Burnham — for putting together a no-frills production without a hint of Hollywood sheen. From start to finish, this whole production is beautifully raw and heartfelt. All the themes and statements hit so much harder because the filmmakers went to so many bold places without pulling a single punch. Of course, it certainly helps that the movie was written and directed by someone with an intimate knowledge of how social media actually works.

It’s true that the movie has a plot deliberately void of structure, with a rambling and low-key nature that may leave some viewers underwhelmed. But then, Lady Bird was lauded for much the same thing, and I’ll go so far as to say that this was a better movie.

Eighth Grade is an awkward movie about the awkward nature of life in middle school. It’s adorable and heartfelt, superbly acted and deftly directed. There’s so much here for viewers of any age to ponder, enjoy, and relate to. This is absolutely not a film to be missed.


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