Film Review: ‘Eighth Grade’: A Powerful Ode to Middle School Shame
Do you remember eighth grade? I have good memories, but the quiet-but-potent “Eighth Grade” reminded me how much I’d forgotten the sheer pain of it all. Middle school is a rite of passage—a pilgrimage, or an odyssey, trying to get to the Land of Coolness. Or not.
There’s the Navigating of the Desert of Loneliness. The Sailing of the Oceans of Embarrassment. The Tripping and Banging of the Chin on the Boulders of Shame. There’s the running of all the nightmarish social gauntlets. It might be the most horrible time of life!
After cringing for 10 minutes straight, I wondered what this Debbie Downer-ish attack on my sacred memories was good for, this stripping of ancient Band-Aids that had hidden little lies I’d long since made up about middle school, where I’d convinced myself I was way cooler than I really was back then. “Eighth Grade” will make you admit painful truths to yourself.
And who needs that, right? But wait; here’s what “Eighth Grade” is good for: practicing compassion. Practicing compassion is something we should all do; it makes the world a better place. I want to put a smiley emoticon right here. They should allow emoticons in film reviews.
Kayla Yearns for Coolness
Everyone would like to be popular, run with the fast crowd—be a beautiful person. And for some, the door is just slammed shut forever. For some, like Kayla, the door is open a tiny gap, and she tries with all her might to wedge a crowbar in there and pry it open it wider.
She makes a series of self-help-for-awkward-8th-graders YouTube videos, which are really just thinly disguised research she’s done for herself—trying to learn to be the person she’s hoping to teach others to be. It’s like a form of projection.
In the videos, she’s sunny, cute, upbeat, a little bit pretty, and achingly sincere. But her videos get no clicks (awww). And then she goes to school, trying to hide in plain sight, with greasy blond hair, round-shouldered slouching, and a pretty serious case of acne.
Millennial 8th Grade Is Way Worse Than Baby-Boomer 8th Grade
In addition to having us remember our own eighth grade experiences (the ungainly honking, tootling, bleating, blaring, thumping, and screeching of the pimple-faced orchestra brings it all back with a vengeance. I was a screecher—seven painful years of violin), writer-director Bo Burnham wants us to take into account how early adolescence has changed under the influence of social media.
Being a loser-dork-nerd-geek social outcast was bad in the 1960s and ’70s. Now imagine not yet having the hard-won wisdom of knowing better than to compare your insides with other people’s outsides. And then, furthermore, owning a life-shriveling, insanely addictive magic tablet that encourages the peeping and stalking of cool (and-or rich) kids who are savvy enough—or don’t really have to try—to make their lives look awesome on Instagram.
Like all first-world kids today, Kayla’s on her phone 24/7, staying up too late, selfie-ing, shutting out dad, and allowing herself to be pervaded by nonstop envy and longing.
The Ultimate Nightmare
While there’s some humor (my favorite bit is some smart-mouthed kid who, off-camera, keeps intoning at every social gathering, “LeBronnn Jaaaaaaames!”), there is mostly just example after example of the horrors of social ineptness.
The worst of these is when the mom of resident mean-girl queen Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) invites Kayla to attend Kennedy’s birthday pool party. Text: “This is Kennedy. My mom insisted I invite you to my party, so this is me doing that.”
The horror. Put yourself in Kayla’s shoes: the hyperventilation of knocking on the front door, the pounding heartbeat of changing into your one-piece, lime-green bathing suit, with your pudge bulging out, your thighs rubbing together, and then looking out the window and seeing all the lithe-limbed pretty girls in cool bikinis. It’s heroic to see Kayla just leave the house and get in the pool.
Everyone brought an expensive, cool present. What’d you bring? A kiddie card game that you sincerely thought would be really fun for Kennedy to play. Because you’re a really nice, sweet young girl who truly wishes the best for people. Wrong! You were wrong! Your gift is met with the vast, shaming silence of ostracism. Awww.
Eventually Kayla gets paired up with Olivia (Emily Robinson), a high school sophomore who, per the tradition of this particular school community, shows her the ropes and tells her that high school is a blast. Things get better! Olivia wasn’t cool either!
But then Kayla gets a ride home with a male high school friend of Olivia’s. In a darker movie, this could have been a horrifying abuse scene, but here it’s only a hint of the dangers that abound for young girls, and Elsie Fisher makes you squirm at the classic tween-teen girl situation of wanting to please and yet not compromise her values. It’s similar to the other outstanding performance in this genre of late: Hailee Steinfeld in “The Edge of Seventeen.” Also Heather Matarazzo’s Dawn Wiener, in 1995’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”
At some point, Kayla accepts who she is, detaches from the need to be special, shuts down her video series, speaks her mind in the face of meanness, and goes on a cute-as-heck date with the nerdiest boy from the pool party, played by Jake Ryan, who did a different, also excellent version of this role in “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Elsie Fisher’s performance is so real, it’ll be yet another performance that makes civilians (what actors call people not immersed in the war that is show business) swear that it’s not actual acting. And yet Miss Fisher is already a showbiz vet.
“Awww!” is all you’ll be muttering to yourself the entire movie: “Awww,” “Awwwwww!!” You’ll be wanting to give little Kayla a big hug every other minute.
Now, there are times when she’s not being shamed to death, when she talks like a complete disrespectful brat to her well-meaning but dorky dad. And you have an opportunity to practice compassion by saying, “Yes, that’s quite annoying. But think how depressed she was just 10 seconds ago.”
And so you extend compassionate well-being toward her regardless, because in just a few more seconds you’ll be going, “Awww! Now I feel so bad that I was intolerant! Come here, child. Let me give you a big hug. Everything will be okayyyy!!” Sad emoticon.
Director: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Imani Lewis, Luke Prael
Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Release Date: July 13
Rated 4 stars out of 5