‘Eighth Grade’ is a Delightfully Awkward Time Capsule of the Contemporary Pre-Teen Experience

click to enlarge COURTESY OF A24
Courtesy of A24
Looking back on my middle school years, I’m reminded of my Tracy-Flick-in-Election-esque need to overachieve in every possible extra-curricular activity, the fact I was never once asked by a guy to dance during a slow song at the winter formals and the mortifying experience of hitting puberty years before the rest of my classmates.

Now, I can look back and recognize my overachieving nature is actually a highly-sought after job quality, guys didn’t want to dance with me because I was, and still am, queer as hell and dealing with puberty early on made me better prepared to deal with the world around me and saved me a lot of years of turmoil down the road. But at the time, these issues were the end-all, be-all of my entire existence. There was nothing more serious or more important than the problems of my day to day 12-year-old life, and A24’s newest release, Eighth Grade captures that anxiety with delightful perfection.

Written and directed by comedian and performance artist Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade follows the last few weeks of wannabe YouTube sensation Kayla Day’s middle school experience. We see a forcefully enthusiastic and inarticulate 12-year-old recording self-help videos on her Macbook within the private confines of her room, while simultaneously being voted “Most Quiet” by her classmates for the end-of-the-year superlatives.

Burnham rose to fame from his popular YouTube videos in 2006, and successfully turned his new-found fanbase into incredibly successful career as a comedian. Burnham’s adolescence was not ‘normal’ by conventional means, and there are some obvious parallels drawn between growing up under the public eye, and the fact that kids today have had access to social media from the day they were born. Kayla can craft her personality any way that she wants from the false sense of safety and confidence allowed by the internet, but in real life, she’s constantly anxious and desperately seeking approval.

Coming-of-age films often focus on losing one’s virginity, a first period or maneuvering the high school experience, frequently forgetting that girls traditionally mature way faster than boys. Eighth Grade doesn’t treat Kayla’s experience as this Lifetime made-for-TV movie or Degrassi-esque world of after-school special dramatics, but rather focuses on the nuances and small experiences that looking back years later would seem minuscule, but in the moment mean absolutely everything.

I remember being 13 years old and hearing a truck driver honk at my friends and I as we’d walk down to the beach by my house and we’d all giggle and laugh about how it must be because we “looked so hot” that day. As adults, I can now recognize that the truck driver honking at a bunch of 13-year-old girls is a fucking creep, and nothing about his attempt to compliment us in that manner is acceptable.

Kayla experiences something similar, and it’s the one moment in the film that borders on the line of shocking or dramatic. It’s a moment, however, played so genuinely, it definitely brought back a lot of memories that had been long since blocked from my psyche. It’s one of the most tension-filled moments I’ve ever experienced in a theater, and it’s solely because its one that myself, and just about everyone who has ever been an eighth grade girl can identify with.

Kayla is played by Elsie Fisher, who voiced Agnes “it’s so fluffy I’m gonna die” Gru in all of the Despicable Me films, but Fisher’s handling of Burnham’s spot-on dialogue littered with “ums,” “likes,” and ear-grating unironic expressions of “Gucci” is masterful. There are moments she delivers so authentically, it’s difficult to believe she wasn’t just improvising.

Age will definitely play a factor into how audiences receive this film. Sure, middle school was hell for absolutely everyone, but today’s middle schoolers endure something that many of us will never be able to fully comprehend. Instead of a tornado drill, Kayla and her classmates groan with annoyance when it’s time for the annual “school-shooter” education drill. Hiding under desks in the dark is like, so boring, so like, how can they expect them not to play games on their phone or scroll Instagram? The drama club has volunteered to play “shooting victims,” complete with low-budget special FX bullet hole wounds in the middle of their foreheads.

I watched this film in a mostly-empty theater surrounded by other members of the press, exclusively male and everyone at least twenty-years my senior. I laughed when a kid interrupted the class assembly by shouting out “LeBron James” like the famous vine, fully aware that the rest of the audience was laughing simply because he’s relevant to Cleveland.

I audibly chortled when the principal “dabbed” in an attempt to relate to his students, a moment that was completely lost on everyone else around me. But when it came to watching Kayla’s single dad Mark (played by the incredible Josh Hamilton), the men in the audience quickly had someone to identify with, a beacon of guidance through this world of emojis and snapchat filters that were flying right over their heads.

Unlike the John Hughes films of yesteryear, Mark is a fully realized character and is actively trying to do everything he can to ensure his daughter that she is exceptional, even if she feels like she can’t amount to beauty or “coolness” of the popular girl in school. Burnham’s involvement of Mark emphasizes the important role parents play in the lives of their pubescent teens, and that this is a time more than ever to be an active participant, even when kids are doing everything in their power to shut them out because, parents just don’t understand.

Eighth Grade isn’t a movie about how it feels like the whole world is against us when we’re in middle school, but rather a film about how we carry the problems of the world on our shoulders, and never give ourselves the break we absolutely deserve.

Eighth Grade opens in Cleveland on July 27.

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