I don’t think there’s a human being alive who liked eighth grade. For me, it was better than seventh grade, but that’s like saying that horse radish is better than mayonnaise; it’s all horrible. For a brief moment, I was surprised to see that this movie was rated R, but then I actually . . . you know . . . remembered eighth grade. Eighth grade is the time in life when children are coming into their attitudes and they love it. They’re nowhere near being adults but, for some reason, they think they’re there, already. The overwhelming majority of eighth-graders are insufferable brats who possess no desire in life other than to declare their own superiority to the world. And, yes, that likely includes your own eighth-graders, out there. Most of them are also two-faced, presenting one persona for their gullible families and then letting their true inner beast out when they get to their school and are surrounded by those who enable and encourage their destructive behavior and attitudes.
This all sounds harsh, but you all know I’m right. But there are also the rare good kids in eighth grade. They’re sincere and honest and just want to make it through each day and get away from the madness. And A24 and director Bo Burnham have gone and made a film about one of those kids. Elsie Fisher (the voice of Agnes in the first two Despicable Me films) plays Kayla, who is just a week away from completing eighth grade and being able to look ahead to high school. But one week is a long time in eighth grade and a lot can happen. Kayla struggles to maintain her own identity and not give in to the external pressures to conform while her loving single father can only observe with worry from the outside.
Much credit should be given to Fisher. It’s difficult enough to navigate the problems inherent in being thirteen years old within one’s own personal life. But, to do it on the big screen for a major motion picture – to put oneself out there for the world to see, with the natural sources of insecurities for that age being highlighted for the world to see in order to tell this story – is brave and commendable. Fisher also provides a tremendously authentic performance, effortlessly conveying the sweet-natured awkwardness of tweendom and bringing it all rushing back for those of us who had done our best to forget it.
The film not only highlights the struggles of kids of that age, but more specifically of young girls. There are moments that are funny, moments that are uncomfortable, moments that are cringeworthy, and even moments that are outright scary. And some of these moments are specific to young girls. With each passing year, the world becomes a more terrifying and threatening place. The advent of social media – where hate trumps love – and the rise to power of the worst humanity has to offer are just a couple of the more recent problems plaguing society and the young get the worst of it. That’s all represented very well by Eighth Grade and gives parents (as well as uncle’s and aunts, as the case may be) plenty to contemplate.
But it’s not all doom, gloom, and cautionary tales. The film is one of the funnier movies of 2018, as well, with some genuine laughs stemming from both dialogue and situational humor. The humor is entirely relatable to anyone who survived middle school and lived to see the absurdity present in those times, but also for those frustrated by the challenges of current times. Sometimes, you just have to laugh at the stupidity of life if for no other reason than to assure oneself that, by acknowledging it, one may absolve themselves of possessing any responsibility for it. This film is great for that.
The film also deftly and intelligently addresses social anxiety and the lifestyle of an introvert. Being an introvert and being an eighth-grader are independent of each other and introversion is something that so many people still don’t understand. Kayla wrestles with the internal struggle of wanting relationships but not being naturally equipped with the tools to attain them. She makes a series of beautifully insightful online videos both as a way to safely reach out to the world and to spur herself on to take her own advice. It’s a poignant and respectful look at a characteristic that is too often vilified and maligned by those who find socializing to be a much more enjoyable and natural experience.
Eighth Grade is a poignant and honest look at life from the perspective of a young introverted girl. Middle school is absolutely the worst time of life when virtually nothing is in favor of going right. Kids are scared of themselves, they’re scared of everyone else, and they create phony personas to hide behind. Burnham’s film is a funny but realistic reminder that it’s possible for a kid to get through it all with their true selves in tact. It offers hope to anyone going through these times and also reinforces the fact that we’ve all got what it takes to make it. A24 has once again delivered a touching, heartfelt, thoughtful film about the human condition.
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