‘Eighth Grade’ Never Shies From the Terrors of Being a Teenager

Eighth Grade movie poster

I remember eighth grade very well. It started with me running cross country and being elected Treasurer to the student council. I stole a line from Chevy Chase as I told my fellow students, “Hi, I am Ben, and you’re not.” They laughed hysterically and cheered me loudly, and I lived for this kind of reaction back then. I felt like I was on top of the world, but then things changed to where I felt completely out of place and unsure of how to talk or act around people my age. I became socially awkward and felt very isolated from everyone around me, and the year ended on what seemed like a disastrous note as I became the center of attention in a negative way, something I hoped and prayed would never happen.

Those memories were brought right back to the surface as I watched “Eighth Grade” which stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, a teenage girl on the verge of graduating from junior high school. When we first meet her, she is making her latest YouTube video in which she is telling her audience about the importance of being yourself, and she comes off looking very confident. But then we see her in the real world and discover she is a deeply introverted young woman who is socially awkward and introverted. Her class ends up voting her “Most Quiet,” and the look on her face when she is told this says so much as even she cannot deny this being true.

Granted, Kayla is growing in a time where social media is everywhere, and she is addicted to her cell phone as much as the next person. But while I did not grow up in a time of cell phone addiction, social media oversaturation, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter among other things, the feelings she experiences as she navigates the cruel realm of middle school feel very real, and I relate to them more than I ever could have expected to after all these years.

Eighth Grade” has many moments which speaks volumes. The scene where the mother of Kennedy, the most popular girl at school, invites Kayla to her daughter’s birthday party is one of the most emotionally piercing. As the mother speaks, the camera has her face out of focus and instead offers a closeup on Kennedy who refuses to even look at Kayla, her face full of disgust to where she looks like she wants to say to her mom “do we have to invite her?” Being on the receiving end of a face like this when you were a teenager always felt really brutal, as our emotions at that age always felt epic to where dejection felt more common than happiness.

This is followed up by the movie’s most horrifying scene: a pool party. Just seeing Kayla stare out a window at the kids laughing and having fun in the pool as if she were a prisoner behind bars proves to be as unsettling as watching Dawn Weiner look for place to sit in the school cafeteria in “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Kayla suffers a panic attack as she puts on her swimsuit, and when she does go into the pool, I kept waiting for her to have a Dustin Hoffman “Graduate” moment when she finds solace underwater. Kayla, however, can only stay underwater for so long as the noise in her head proves to be louder than everything going on outside of her.

Kayla does get a reprieve when she attends a high school shadow program and meets a really nice young woman named Olivia (Emily Robinson) who is very eager to introduce Kayla to the new school she will soon attend. Watching Kayla interact with Olivia reminded me of how I got along better with kids older than me than I did with those my own age. Her newfound friendship, however, hits a major snag when one of Olivia’s friends invites Kayla to play a game of truth or dare. I kept praying Kayla would not say the word “dare,” and when she does…

While watching “Eighth Grade,” I was reminded of the following exchange of dialogue from Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides:”

“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”

“Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.”

Writer and director Bo Burnham, one of the first performers to become a star on YouTube, has brilliantly captured all the angst, horror and awkwardness of these crazy years we would rather put behind us. Clearly, he was never a teenage girl himself, but this quickly becomes irrelevant as anyone who has ever felt left out or at the bottom of the social ladder can easily relate to what Kayla experiences from start to finish. His screenplay feels very true to life, and not once does this movie feel like an average episode of “Saved by the Bell” or “Beverly Hills 90210.”

As Kayla, Elsie Fisher has such a winning presence to where you root for her right from the start. Her face, which has evidence of pimples, is not the kind we see in Clearasil commercials, and I applaud her for not trying to cover this up. In moments where she has no dialogue, Fisher shows us exactly what is going through Kayla’s mind as she is unable to hide the confusion and uncertainty of how to act around others. It’s a wonderful performance which feels true to life, and Fisher makes her final moments in “Eighth Grade” count for so much as she prepares to start the next stage of her life with newfound confidence.

The other performance I loved was from Josh Hamilton who plays Kayla’s father, Mark Day. At first, it looked like he is portraying a hapless dad who is simply here for comedic effect, but Hamilton gives this character dimensions which truly surprised me. Mark could have been like any other father we often in see in movies, but Hamilton digs deep to find the bruised heart of one who is just trying to do the best he can. It all leads to a wonderfully acted scene where Mark tells Kayla how she can never make him sad, and it is one of the more original moments I have seen between a parent and their child in recent years, and I am certain I will never forget it.

It gives me great pleasure to add “Eighth Grade” to my list of the best and most realistic motion pictures ever made about teenagers. Movies like “Pump Up the Volume” proved to be a godsend for me as they dealt with real teenagers going through problems I could actually relate to, and kids today need these movies as a healthy alternative to the more flaccid and shallow portrayals of their age set which do not reflect their reality. While much of what I saw was unnerving to where I was instantly reminded of far too many embarrassing moments from my junior high school days, it is always refreshing to get a movie from a filmmaker who takes the time to listen to teenagers instead of talking down to them. John Hughes may be gone, but there are other filmmakers more than willing to carry his torch for another generation.

Regardless of its R rating, I hope those who are in the eighth grade or have just graduated from junior high school get to check this movie out as I believe they will benefit greatly from watching it. I also have to say if adults are intent on saying the word “lit” in videos aimed at teenagers, they need to understand how kids use this word. Trust me, kids see through your façade, and your attempts to look cool to them will make you appear far too desperate for their approval.

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