There has started to become a trend of there being a coming-of-age movie every year that garners awards and praise. Last year it was Lady Bird. Two years ago it was The Edge of Seventeen. Before that was Brooklyn, and before that Boyhood. Eighth Grade will probably be this year’s contender. But before you think “Oscar bait!” let me persuade you otherwise.
Eighth Grade doesn’t really have a plot, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film moves along at a good pace and ends satisfyingly, but it does feel more episodic than you might expect. The whole story takes place during thirteen-year-old Kayla Day’s last week in eighth grade.
The film is based on cringe humor and terrific performances. Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s dad is one of the best movie dads of all time. That’s it. No debate. This is almost as much a movie about parenting as it is teenagerhood. And Elsie Fisher is incredible as Kayla. While watching the film, you realize a large majority of it is focused on her face. Many directors wouldn’t trust such a young talent to carry the film exclusively on her shoulders and let the camera linger on her for long periods of time. But this film does, because Fisher can handle it. Most striking is her physicality- she slumps the whole movie, her eyes anxiously glancing back and forth, and on top of that, she actually looks like a real thirteen-year-old. It was realistic, sometimes I felt like I was watching old footage of myself.
That’s how I think most people will react. While some aspects of the film are going to be relatable primarily to women, I am positive that everyone will see parts of themselves in both Kayla and others. The universality of the awkwardness of that period- whatever age you are- overcomes the superficial differences.
But it’s not just enough to make a movie about how awkward teenagers are. All coming-of-age movies do that. What makes Eighth Grade different is its insight. It doesn’t it just say, “wow teens are so weird.” It understands why, and perfectly showcases its philosophy through the central framing device. Throughout the film, Kayla makes youtube videos. She does them on subjects such as “how to have confidence,” and “how to make friends.” Her advice is cliche-ridden, but it is good. She just struggles to live it out. The disconnect between what she says and does is evident.
This, the movie says, is why teenagers struggle so much. Unlike children, they realize they aren’t perfect. They have a hole in their heart, and they don’t know why they are incomplete. But unlike adults, they either don’t have the words and tools to start figuring out what is missing, or they don’t have a dependency on various coping mechanisms/idols yet. They know they are incomplete but cannot figure out what to do about it.
This hole, this sense of incompleteness, is sin. It’s our fallen nature and can only be filled by God. We all have it, and in that sense, we all understand the anxiety and fear of the teenage years. It simply looks different in adults.
Kayla knows the person she wants to become- that’s who her videos describe. She knows what she’s missing, but cannot get there. She says in the film, “I’m nervous, like I’m waiting in line for a roller coaster, (but) I never get the feeling you get after you ride the roller coaster.” Waiting for release, for everything to fall into place and seem whole, but never getting there. That is the curse teenagers are growing into.
I was introduced to writer/director Bo Burnham’s comedy about a year ago at the recommendation of a friend (you can find two of his specials on Netflix). I found his work to be incredibly clever, but also incredibly cynical. I was worried that his cynicism and snarky nihilism would be an element of this film.
Not so. Bo Burnham has created a hopeful film, one that teaches that what you feel in eighth grade will probably be temporary, and even if it’s not, there will always be people who will love you through it. But probably the best message of Eighth Grade comes simply from its existence. Seeing it, and knowing you are not alone, is the empathetic message of the film, and I can’t think of a better one to send to both real eighth graders, and the rest of us.