In Eighth Grade, the Kids Are Not All Right

In Eighth Grade, the Kids Are Not All Right August 6, 2018

“I’m sorry, but if you were seeing this with your parents…[and] you didn’t want your parents to know what 8th grade was really like for you…you just got, like, exposed.” – Eden, an 8th-grader

Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade. Photo: A24

It’s the pitch-perfect indie hit of the year. It’s a masterpiece of “queasy verisimilitude.” It’s a film so unwaveringly authentic, viewers are describing it as a cross between “must-see” and “see between your fingers.” Is it a horror movie? Officially, no. It’s a movie about being in eighth grade, circa 2018. Does that qualify as horror? Let the viewer decide.

Eighth Grade is certainly nothing if not well-acted. The star, Elsie Fisher, offers a heartbreaking portrayal of a 13-year-old girl who makes Vlogs on self-confidence by night and walks the halls of her middle school in a perpetual state of suppressed panic by day. Her only constant friend is the iPhone on which she has unlimited Internet access.

This is Kayla. She is Generation Z. And she is an indictment on the generations who came before her.

Not that writer/director Bo Burnham intends her to be so, at least not obviously. Though at times, in montages of endlessly scrolling screens full of Snapchat videos and Twitter feeds, it seems as if the film wants to say something, but no words will come. Burnham is as tongue-tied as his main character. Still, he shows us things.

Like Kayla’s chart of “Things I want” in one column and “How to get there” in another, with “Boyfriend?” on the left and a list of suggestions to this end including “Be sexy” on the right.

Like Kayla’s crush, who only registers her existence the moment she hints at a (non-existent) folder of “dirty photos” on her phone. She makes this last, desperate gamble after being informed by a classmate that said crush already “dumped” his last “girlfriend” for refusing to send nudes. “Do you give blowjobs?” he asks, his interest piqued.

Like a 17-year-old boy who fades into the background of a group hangout at the mall, until it’s night-time, and he’s the only one left to drive Kayla home.

Viewers will be relieved that while Kayla comes dangerously close to being deflowered in that night-time scene, her would-be predator decides to call off his chilling game of Truth or Dare before actually laying a hand on her. But not without making sure she understands what a fool she is to refuse to play. It was either this or the humiliation of an inept first hook-up at a party two years down the road. He was offering her a favor. She apologizes, repeatedly and tearfully.

Of course, that’s not all there is to Eighth Grade. In fact, for large portions of the film, nothing in particular happens. Kayla gets voted “most quiet” kid in class. Kayla plays cymbals for an ungodly band rendition of the National Anthem. Kayla goes to a pool party and feels miserable. Kayla tries and fails to make conversation with the mean girls. Kayla throws her phone across the room and cracks the screen.

A soldier once described war as 98% boredom and 2% sheer terror. The analogy seems apt.

Where is Kayla’s father in all this, you might ask?

He is… there. After a fashion. He hovers. He looks worried. He tries to talk with Kayla while trying not to offend Kayla. As sympathetically played by Josh Hamilton, he exudes awkward Dad charm and poignant helplessness. (He’s also single, a point which the viewer gradually infers, but which is not openly discussed until a crucial scene at the end.)

This is the world of Eighth Grade: a world in which the adults lack all conviction, and the children are full of hormonal intensity.

Thankfully, we are assured, Eighth Grade is more than “a simple cautionary tale.” It’s not here to finger-wag. It’s here to show us how, just like Kayla, your eighth-grader will make it through eighth grade. Sure, everyone knows it’s “awkward.” Sure, everyone knows it’s a little piece of hell on earth (amirite)? But the really important thing is that Kayla keeps going. She keeps fighting to be herself. And sure, she nearly gets raped in the back of a car, but she stands up! She says no! I say she’s ready for high school, don’t you? Teen Vogue thinks so:

At the very least, it seems Kayla is finally giving herself a break, allowing herself to be who she is now and looking with hope to who she will be later. At most, she has come to grips with the fact that she can never quite know what sort of woman (or even 16-year-old) she will become and that the turbulent ride of adolescence is fueled, in part, by that anticipation. Either way, we have a feeling Kayla is going to be just fine.

This would be the same Teen Vogue that was not so long ago offering its readers a tutorial on anal intercourse, by the way. Just to jog everyone’s memory.

Another headline calls Kayla “a young woman struggling to express herself.” No. Wrong. Kayla is a 13-year-old girl. Kayla is a child.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the reviewers are too far off the mark about Burnham’s ultimate intent. He tips his hand in that aforementioned pivotal conversation between Kayla and her father. After committing her 6th-grade time capsule to the flames with his help, Kayla asks him, “Do I make you sad?” The question shocks and hurts him. Why would she ask such a thing? Because, she muses, if she had a daughter like herself, she would probably feel sad. Naturally, he hastens to reassure her that nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s a touching scene, believably acted. It is also profoundly tragic. “I stopped worrying whether you were gonna be okay a long time ago,” Dad effuses. Whatever came Kayla’s way, he just knew she would have what it took. He just knew she would know what to do. “You make me brave,” he says.

Parents: What is wrong with this picture? Take all the time you need.

Briefly, we get a glimpse of what middle school ought to be in a scene towards the end, where Kayla accepts an invitation from the class nerd to hang out at his house for a dinner of microwaved chicken nuggets and fries. Undisturbed by parents, they sit on opposite sides of a single candle, he fumbling and stumbling awkwardly while she navigates the situation with tactful warmth. At last, something pure breaks through, something innocent and unspoiled. Something that seems to take place on another planet.

Eighth Grade is rated R, primarily for language. At Tulsa World, one reviewer writes, “Burnham makes it clear that 14-year-olds live in a world that is rated R, not PG-13. That’s true, as any parent of a teen knows…”

Really? Any parent? I think Tulsa World missed a spot. That should read “any parent who agrees to play this game.” With each passing school year, more and more parents are refusing to agree to any such thing.

May their number increase.

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