I want you to take a moment to recall to mind a memory from when you were in middle school, around age 13. Try to imagine yourself during early adolescence–your thoughts and feelings, your relationships and social behaviors, your fears and insecurities, your desires and dreams. What did you look like–did you like your face or body? Do you remember?
Go on. I’ll wait.
Bo Burnham’s masterful directorial debut Eighth Grade is so authentic in its depiction of early adolescence that it should come with a trigger warning: this will be awkward, and could bring back those stuffed-down memories of middle school you’ve been trying to forget. Adults tend to either ignore middle schoolers or be annoyed by them. But Burnham notices them and pays close attention. And to paraphrase another A24 teen film, don’t you think maybe they are the same thing: love and attention? In this, Eighth Grade is a cinematic act of love honoring those significant years of identity formation by paying attention and being honest, even when it hurts. Every parent, teacher, coach, and pastor who interacts with and cares about middle schoolers should watch this film.
Eighth Grade centers on Kayla (Elsie Fisher) and her final week of eighth grade, perhaps a slight nod to Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Kayla exists in liminal spaces: between the end of middle school and the beginning of high school, between childhood and adulthood, and between her everyday flesh-and-blood life and her online personality. Introverted and quiet, but not exactly insecure (not any more than anyone is at this age) Kayla finds a way to share her voice with the world via social media by recording video blogs giving advice to teens. Burnham intersperses many of Kayla’s recordings as a narration for her real-life actions; a voiceover describes how to have confidence as Kayla chooses to step up to the karaoke machine at a pool party she’s invited to attend, despite not really having any friends there. This is just one of the many cinematically-interesting aspects of Eighth Grade, as Burnham experiments with dissolves, long-takes, and various editing styles to transform this seemingly straightforward teen film into something formally fresh and innovative. Just as Kayla is trying to form her own identity via her videos, the form of Eighth Grade itself is trying (and succeeding) to reinvent the bildungsroman genre with its basic tropes.
Kayla’s primary relationship is with her single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton); its awkward tension is pushed almost into caricature territory…except this is what it’s like to be a parent of a middle schooler. Hamilton is charmingly dorky, and he and Fisher have a wonderful chemistry, even in the scenes where there is a clear disconnect in their sense of the world. Both communicate a lot with their bodies and postures, quick glances with their eyes or long pauses in conversations. Fisher is especially great here, giving one of the strongest performances in 2018 precisely because it isn’t flashy or showy. Another significant relationship emerges in Olivia (Emily Robinson), the bubbly high schooler Kayla is assigned to shadow when she visits the high school for a day in preparation for freshman year. Olivia is wonderfully gracious with Kayla, the perfect picture of a mentor/mentee relationship and how small acts of kindness can go a long way for a young teen. I also loved the few scenes with Gabe (Jake Ryan), the kid at the pool party who tries to swim the length of the pool underwater, shows off his handstand skills to Kayla, and is an expert in chicken nugget dipping sauces. He is the Platonic ideal of Middle School Boy (it doesn’t surprise me that Ryan was also in Moonrise Kingdom).
Having been a youth pastor for over a decade, ministering primarily with middle school-aged students, I am convinced that inside of every adult, regardless of age, the memory and identity of their middle school selves lives on. Some of the most formative events and emotions of our lives occur during this season of life, yet as adults we nearly always try to suppress or forget them (or literally do forget them, in a sort of PTSD blackout way). We do not get over this season of life. It lingers on and erupts unexpectedly, like bad acne. We are all still 13-years-old at heart, trying to fake/make our way through this world and hoping that people think we are cool and worthy of love. Eighth Grade captures early adolescence with a raw honesty and realism rarely depicted or celebrated on screen. So many coming-of-age films either avoid or sensationalize the middle school years. Eighth Grade is destined to be included in the early adolescent cinematic pantheon alongside The 400 Blows, Kes, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and Moonrise Kingdom precisely because it simply presents middle school as it is, acne and all. This film is truly awkward and awkwardly true. In a word, it’s lit.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7014006/