Abandon accolades and Aristotelian ethics. This is the Eighth Grade. There’s too much pressure to be the paradox. Preteens wade between two polars: the homogeneous clones—prone toward whatever the popular populous deems cool—and the individual butterfly waiting to explode in uniquely bold genius.
Eighth grade is too much for all of us. In the fever of angsty pubescence, the world makes it worse by shouting from every magazine cover and beauty product ad and every YouTube how-to that a rush toward adulting is key to survival. We all long to be known beneath the pounds of fake-up we layer on over the layer that we really are. Everyone is insecure. Everyone fears the eighth grade pool party. Everyone wants the crush to look twice and see the real us.
It’s too many voices telling you you’re not good enough until… unless… without…
And into this onrushing of often self-inflicted advice-column torture comes the hisses of peers. From the preening mean girl carousel, those most popular love picking up onlookers only to watch them fly off as they laughingly spin on. If you were by some miracle allowed to miss the cycle and you enjoyed your middle school / junior high experience, you are one of the lucky ones. For me these so-called formative years remain the worst in my memory, and I’m not alone.
Director Bo Burnham, the Judy Blume of a new era, has succeeded in removing the burning embers that were Eighth Grade for the vast populous and offer a new voice in his film by the same title. Hitting theaters nationally this July, the little girl actress who voiced the Despicable Me “It’s so fluffy” character takes on this very honest, close-up review of the year she just lived in real life. In a small town where they filmed, the middle school finally gets the spotlight.
The character Kayla hosts her daily vlog offering life advice to her audience and, in reality, herself. It’s a daily challenge to wear, say, do, and be the right thing. From shining moments of bravery to low tempests of sorrow, Kayla navigates friendships, crushes, acne, and family through the lens of the handy rectangular mentor: the Google search.
Attending Seattle International Film Festival’s (SIFF) closing day showing of Burnham’s film was a treat. Then, as the final screen moved to credits, three rounds of applause began: one for the film, one for the lanky writer/director who suddenly came marching down the aisle, and another for the star, Elsie Fisher, who also popped in for a Q & A. There in the little Uptown Theater, teeming with actual junior highers, hands flailed to ask the director about his process and Elsie about her experience. Both walked away having learned a great deal from the other, from the black hole of YouTube quandaries, and from developing this sour-to-sweet coming-of-age story. Burnham’s knack for comedy served him well in editing for an audience. His favorite scene was also mine. There is a seemingly inconsequential karaoke scene at a party in which Kayla volunteers. It plays like a music video, a reflective, colorful memory on-screen, and it’s lovely.
Her father figure stumbles through the day-to-day of parenting rarely shown in films, and he is the best. His kindness and genuine care for his daughter allow his voice to rise above all others at just the right time. I teach “daddy issues” as theme in film, and this indie dream offers the opposite: a good dad trying to be a listener, to just be there for the daughter he treasures. He’s a bit goofy, but he’s a good one.
So, when you walk through the red curtains of the theater, you too will revisit Eighth Grade…as if you were in it right now. In that corner desk in Mrs. Hanson’s class. I remember that feeling, the deep alone of never knowing, never known. Of craving cool and missing it entirely. Of acne and knock-knees, changing in the locker room. There seems to be nothing romantic or lovely about those transitional years, but then it hits you—those experiences made you, are perhaps still making you. You learned how to find friends, detecting the users from the winners. We all get older, and in that maturation, gain perspectives formed by those dark days of wanting a tribe, of seeking truth, of forging ahead through the cacophony of voices only to emerge and hear your own for the first time.
Stephanie Platter is a teacher to those just exiting the 8th grade, a writer, a film critic, and a coffee lover who appreciates a good night out at the movies almost as much as summer conversations by the apple tree.