Seeing Eighth Grade, comedian-turned-director Bo Burnham’s poignant coming of age comedy, earlier this summer was especially difficult for me. When I first saw the movie I was only a few weeks removed from having experienced the week depicted in the film, which saw the awkward and young Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) trying to survive her final week of junior high, from the other side of the tunnel. My stepdaughter had recently wrapped up her last week of junior high, and I was struck, heavily, by the timing of it all.
I’m younger than most parents with kids moving into high school, and the perils of That Time In My Life still ring through my psyche. It’s easy for me to recall the awkward fumblings of adolescence, but I’m keenly aware of how adulthood can act like a prism, dispersing our memories into a kind of rainbow of “it wasn’t that bad.” But given how true Eighth Grade felt to my worst memories, I wondered how true it was.
My stepdaughter—who asked that I don’t use her name so that she can control her own online footprint—sat down with me and watched Burnham’s film when the Blu-ray was made available to me. As a fan of Burnham’s comedy, she was eager to see what he could do cinematically. As her father figure, I was curious how she felt about the depictions of adolescence portrayed in the film. And so, as I’m sure the children of film critics tend to always do, after watching the film, she and I had a talk.
“I think that it’s accurate and it’s relatable,” she said, giving her immediate first impression of the film. “It’s real. I think Burnham really understood what it’s like right now to be in middle school. It would probably seem really cringy to an adult who was watching it…you know, with all of the dabbing and that one scene at the pool where one of the girls was doing the floss. But no! Because of the internet, we are covered in memes. All the time. There’s been like no teen movie ever that really got that right.”
Knowing what we know about the internet and social media, that’s a terrifying reality as a parent, but it’s one that Burnham understands deeply, and one he doesn’t shy away from in his film. (It’s interesting, my stepdaughter points out, that the scene where Kayla is most vulnerable and emotionally open, the scene with her father by the fire, is one of the few scenes where her face is lit by a source other than her phone. For all the hemming and hawing about social media in the film, Burnham does seem to understand the differences between the social media self and the actual self.) That’s how it is though, according to my stepdaughter.
“Today I saw on my Instagram feed somebody who I barely know but I still like all their posts because I think they’re cool. But I would never talk to them.”
She mentions this as an observation regarding Kayla and Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and their awkward non-relationship. Parents, of course, had always tried to force kids who would otherwise not be friends into hanging out, but these days, with social media, the affectation of friendship is a lot easier to pull off. In that sense, she relates to Kayla though she’s quick to point out, in that adolescent way of asserting independence and uniqueness, that Kayla and she are nothing alike.
“On the surface, I didn’t really identify with Kayla. I didn’t hate her, but I was very frustrated with her. But specifically the scene where she asked her dad to burn the box with her, and she asked if she made him sad…I don’t know if you noticed but I’m about to cry right now because that was so true. That’s what every one of us thinks.”
This touches on the stark realities of the film, and the lives for which it proports to speak. Adolescence is hard—we all know that, of course, but it’s easy for us to forget just how hard, and in what ways. Eighth Grade succeeds most at treating its subjects and its characters with reverence, as if they’re real people. Teenagers aren’t condescended to here. They’re not spoken down to. As much as we adults might dismiss the fears and concerns of teenagers as, well, teenage bullshit, it’s easy to forget how difficult those years can be. Burnham, with his deft ear for dialogue and eye for detail, has managed to capture those realities arguably as good or better as any more seasoned director.
“I think Kayla is a great role model,” she says, reflecting on the climactic scene between her and Kennedy. “Which kind of leads into my favorite thing about the movie. Her videos, that was a really good idea. Her first video was about being herself, despite the fact that she wasn’t herself until the end of the movie. I think she’s an inspiration, specifically to me, because I need to learn how to actually…say what I want.”
It’s here that I realized just why and how Eighth Grade hit me so hard the first time I saw it. As the parent to a 14-year-old girl, I want nothing more than for her to have the strength of self to display the kind of guts and the kind of fortitude that Kayla displays throughout the movie, not just at the climactic confrontation near the end. The courage to say, “No.” The strength to say, “Fuck off.” The fortitude to not just know who she is, but to express it, loudly, proudly, and without shame.
The magic accomplished by Burnham with Eighth Grade is a reminder of what that’s like, the process of not only figuring out who and what you are, but how and why to express it as well. It’s a coming of age dramedy so unlike most coming of age dramedies because it remembers, deeply, the awkward pain of coming into your own. For that reason, Eighth Grade is one of the best films of 2018. Even with all the disagreements she and I might have, my stepdaughter agrees with me on that part.
“It was incredibly beautiful,” she said, summarizing her ultimate thoughts. “I really love this movie.”
Eighth Grade is now available on Blu-ray and digital.
See our original review here.