Shown at the 2018 Sarasota Film Festival, "Eighth Grade" opens Nationwide: Enjoy the Horrors and Humors of Teenagehood

Shown at the 2018 Sarasota Film Festival, “Eighth Grade” opens Nationwide: Enjoy the Horrors and Humors of Teenagehood

A few months ago, I got to see an early viewing of ‘Eighth Grade’ at the Sarasota Film Festival. I’ve been a massive fan of Bo Burnham’s comedy for the last 10 years so I was anxious to see his directorial debut. I became even more excited when we were surprised with Burnham in attendance for a panel before and after the film. With equal parts earnest heart and uneasy honesty, ‘Eighth Grade’ is brilliantly written, executed, and delivered.

Teen-Movie Legend Molly Ringwald even called ‘Eighth Grade’ “the best film about adolescence I’ve seen in a long time. Maybe ever.”

The film follows Kayla, played by the excellent Elsie Fisher, in her last week of middle school. Kayla is awkward, anxious, and soft-spoken. She clings to and attempts to manifest confidence through positive thinking. Her room is adorned with affirmations and notes to herself – “Be Confident” “Dream Big” and “Wear more eyeliner”. She has a YouTube channel with a frequent vlog devoted to inspiring these ideas “Be confident. Be yourself. Put yourself out there. Do a good job” – she is the only one who watches.

Even with the generational gap between Kayla and many of us, we’ve all been in eighth grade and felt the things she does: fear, self-consciousness, anxiety, shame. Kayla portrays a little piece of all of our stories. 

While the things that today’s teenagers are dealing with may seem very different than what many of us had to endure (I shudder at the thought of having had social media in THE most awkward stage of my life), the themes are ones we can all resonate with. Wanting to be seen, acknowledged, accepted. We remember wanting to feel confident in our own skin and often still feel that way. We wanted to be invited to the popular girl’s birthday party. We dreamt of our crush asking us out. We had the anxiety of being invited to a pool party and that moment of stepping into the pool where you feel like every eye is on you, judging you. We crossed our arms, slouching, made ourselves smaller. 

Social Media as we know it didn’t exist when I was in middle school – and thank God for that. We however did have AOL Instant Messenger, and I remember having to call my middle school boyfriend’s home phone, pacing my room, while asking his parents if I could talk to him. But really, that was the extent of it.

When writing this article, I decided to revisit myself at that age in the form of my middle school diary. The cringe was overwhelming throughout but what was even more apparent was that with each “He is sooo cute” there were 10 more “Why do I feel this way/I wish I was/Do they even like me?” With each entry I was reminded of the inherent anxiety that comes with being a 13-year-old girl, thankful to be out of it, but overtly aware that kids are still out there fighting the good fight of surviving their awkward years.

"Eighth Grade" opens Nationwide: Enjoy the Horrors and Humors of TeenagehoodKids are constantly being told to be themselves, while they’re not exactly even sure of who they are. Then there is all of this noise from these outside sources telling them to be themselves as long as that person has a very particular set of qualities, products, and friends. Snapchat filters to make them feel cuter, Instagram posts from parties they weren’t invited to, an amount of ‘likes’ (or lack thereof) that gives a number to their worth.

In ‘Eighth Grade’, the bullies are not tyrants. They’re not throwing nerds into a locker, giving swirlies, or even calling names. Kayla’s not necessarily ridiculed or put on blast: she’s ignored. The bullies are passive-aggressive, exclusive, eye-rollers. They look a lot like everyone else – just maybe with more popular clothes.

But the film is not just about the awkward years and social media being evil – online is also where Kayla feels most confident and comfortable, speaking aloud the things she wants to be. The things she keeps fighting to become. 

There are so many more dynamic points: healthy father-daughter relationships, the importance of mentorship and strong role models, the era of “social media” creating a much lonelier feeling, the escapism and unrealistic expectations of the online persona, genuine kindness. So if you thought the title of ‘Eighth Grade’ means this movie may not be for you, it’s actually for all of us.

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One last point I want to hit on. There are countless moments throughout the film that you may tangibly feel the the secondhand awkwardness and anxiety. There was one moment in particular that I could feel my heart beat a little faster in, and I could feel the theater tense up.

There’s a scene depicting an active shooter drill at the school. The students in the film seem unfazed by it, but you could almost hear every seat in the audience anxiously shift weight. It felt strange to see. At age 25 I was probably the youngest person in the room at this showing and I had never even seen a drill like that in my schooling, which is safe to assume most the audience probably wasn’t privy to that particular experience either. And we felt weird about it… because we should, because it’s not something that should be a part of a normal school day. But the choice to include that was brilliant by Burnham, a reminder that what middle schoolers experience today is very different than what we do. It’s not just all about social media and wanting to fit in, and it’s about time we start paying attention to the struggles of the modern teenager.

photos courtesy of @eighthgrademov on Twitter

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2018-08-05