When I was in eighth grade (many moons ago), the internet barely existed, let alone social media. The idea of everyone having their own handheld computer that connected them to each other and the world sounded like something out of an episode of Star Trek. The closest thing we had to instant messaging was notes folded up and passed between classes.
A lot has changed since then, as middle schoolers of 2018 are more tech savvy by the time they’re thirteen than most folks a generation or two older than them could ever hope to be. Smartphones are ubiquitous, for better or worse; social media is a tool of global connection, and anybody can be “YouTube famous.” It seems the very experience of middle school, that last year before setting off for the hallowed halls of high school, has fundamentally changed.
Or has it?
Writer/director Bo Burnham’s feature film debut Eighth Grade may be as contemporary as a Snapchat-filtered selfie, making it a wildly timely and fun watch, but it’s also a deeply thoughtful observation on the universal truths of the agony, ecstasy and everything in between of growing up.
Elsie Fisher (the voice of Agnes in the Despicable Me films) is Kayla, heading into eighth grade as a newly-minted teenager, a jumble of emotions, hormones and energy she hasn’t quite gotten the hang of. She lives with her dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), and posts sweet, often inspirational video confessionals online in an effort to both express herself and find a following, a tribe. She knows how she’s supposed to be in the world around her, exuding a natural confidence and grace that seems to come so easily to some. But like a fawn fumbling around on the ice her first winter, Kayla is instead all knees and elbows, clumsy and awkward and temperamental. You know, a teenager.
That’s not to say Kayla is one to be pitied; far from it. She is to be cheered. Eighth Grade doesn’t rely on a singular, climactic event on which it builds a narrative; there’s no big school dance Burnham’s leading up to, no major revelation we’re waiting for over the course of the film. Instead, we’re there to watch Kayla try. We’re simply along for the journey as this strong, smart, exceptional young woman takes the reins on her own life for the very first time, learning to navigate maturing friendships, romances, responsibilities and consequences.
And what a journey it is.
We’ve all been there, of course. We’ve all been too shy about how we look in a bathing suit to really enjoy the pool party; too scared of rejection to say hello to the person we’re crushing on; too embarrassed about our singing voice to give the audition our all. We’ve all been there, and to some degree, we all fight those battles every day of our lives, long after our school days end.
The victory of Eighth Grade, then—even if you strip away the of-the-moment social media and tech references—is in how it reminds us each to just keep going. To brush ourselves off and try again. To swim anyways, to say hello anyways, to sing anyways. This is who Kayla is, and this is why, as we watch her put herself out there in moments that are excruciatingly accurate in their teenage tension, we know she’ll be OK in the end.
And so will we.
Filmmaker Bo Burnham will be in Chicago on Saturday, July 21 for post-film Q&As around town, including: the 5p show at Century Evanston; the 7:30pm show at Landmark Century Center Cinema; and the 8:30p and 9:10p shows at AMC River East 21.
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