Eighth Grade August 14, 2018
1 Hr., 34 Mins.
So evocative is it in its portrayal of what it’s like to be 14 that it, rigorously, transports us to that specific time in our lives, almost encouraging us to look for the similarities between ourselves and its heroine, the timid, sweet Kayla (a magnificent Elsie Fisher).
I saw many. Like Kayla, I had a YouTube channel (adorned with mundane shorts featuring bored, braces-wearing friends, or since-deleted skits starring a stringy-haired puppet named Scribbles); struggled with pesky acne and a doughy, asymmetric body; took everything to heart; was excruciatingly nervous about my social life; would snap at my parents, ever-concerned, for no discernible reason. The audibly bruised laugher that consistently rumbled throughout the theater indicated that I wasn’t the only one alternately voyeuristically watching and reliving.
Eighth Grade covers five days in Kayla's dreary life; all will culminate in her graduation. It is, all-too-appropriately, a vulnerable, fraught time — a perfect simulacrum of what we imagine most of her adolescence has looked like thus far.
She lives in a quiet house in a middle-class neighborhood with her funny, caring single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton); much time is spent in her bedroom, where the walls are covered in cheery sticky notes — “Go get ‘em!” and “Put a little lip gloss on the cheeks for shine" among the missives — and where she produces two-to-three-minute-long videos in which she doles out advice-column-esque guidance to no one in particular. "Like” and “you know” decorate the oration as if they were living-room furniture.
She doesn’t really have any friends, an effect of her being so shy (she’s voted “Most Quiet” at an end-of-the-year assembly), and takes to Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram as if they were unguents to soothe her social fears. She longs to be in with the “in” crowd, which is headed by the trifling Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere). She also longs to be the girlfriend of a boy named Aiden (Luke Prael), who is, essentially, the middle-school equivalent of the ain't-shit, Timothée Chalamet-portrayed love interest from Lady Bird (2017).
Other mini-milestones, from Kayla’s being pity-invited to Kennedy’s poolside birthday party to a mall hangout with a group of high schoolers (which concludes disappointingly), are touched upon in the feature. But Eighth Grade’s power doesn’t altogether derive from the events on which it builds. What matters is how Kayla experiences each, and how she navigates them as a fledgling person who cannot, but someday will, confidently express herself.
The fondant atop the cake of painful relatability came, for me, during a scene, which occurs toward the end of the movie, where Kayla talks about her unease for the for-now final episode of her little-watched vlog series.
“I’m really like nervous all the time,” she confesses. “It’s like I’m waiting in line for like a roller coaster and that stupid like butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling you get. I get that all the time. And then I never get the feeling after you ride the roller coaster.”
That feeling — which I’ve never been able to so easily put into words — was the most defining aspect of my middle-school experience. I have, since, never been quite so miserable as a result of my self-consciousness.
It is a strange experience to watch Eighth Grade after growing accustomed to now-commonplace teen-movie tropes, which have been imbued by John Hughes’ oeuvre and the decades-strong practice of hiring 20-somethings to play kids who're just barely past puberty. Though growing older is inexorable, it is almost unseemly to depict the most unpleasant years of our youth completely truthfully. Peering at it all through a flaw-obfuscating filter is preferable.
Recently, Molly Ringwald, the star of many of Hughes’ most iconic features, tweeted that Eighth Grade was the best movie about adolescence she’d seen “maybe ever.” As noted by Naomi Fry of the New Yorker, this carried weight: it confirmed an idea, that I’ve personally long tended to, that even the most canonical of teen-centric movies are usually idealistic and prettily bittersweet. When the star of the majority of them seems as though she supports this notion herself, it’s clear that the product on display might be something of a breakthrough.
Eighth Grade is neither idealistic nor prettily bittersweet: it demonstrates the horrors of juvenescence comprehensively. Burnham depicts it all with stunning, cringey clarity; Fisher embodies it with a lucidity that must have required a great deal of courage to perform.
I wonder how Eighth Grade might have made me feel if I'd seen it when I was 14. I’d like to believe I would have been able to breathe a bit easier, knowing, for certain, that I wasn’t so alone in my disquietude. Even now, though, a confirmation going beyond the faraway recollections of a friend that that abstract, aforementioned roller-coaster-like feeling truly wasn't unique to me, and that the grand majority of the things I was most anxious about were not just experienced by me, makes me feel seen. It wasn't all in my head. A
ighth Grade (2018), the directorial debut of the comedian Bo Burnham, captures the anxieties of adolescence so vividly that I sometimes watched the film, squirming in my seat, with my eyes strategically covered. “This is like a horror movie,” I whispered to the friend with whom I went to a screening.
That Eighth Grade feels akin to a horror movie speaks to its power.