How did we miss a movie that was included in The Week magazine’s list of the top ten of 2018? Perhaps MoviePass never included it in their own list of allowable films at our local theater. That particular program was one of our favorites for part of the year, until it became utterly useless and we left it behind. And that’s probably good, since we were substituting movie theater snacks for our dinner an unhealthy number of times.
But I digress. Eighth Grade was indeed a movie worth seeing, and one to recommend, with one caveat: if you hated the year in school chronicled in this film as much as I did, you’ll be curled up in a fetal position by the time the movie reaches its mid point. Writer and director Bo Burnham masterfully portrays that awkward time in our development from the perspective of lead actress Elsie Fisher’s wonderful portrayal of Kayla Day, a pimply faced middle-schooler who broadcasts her thoughts and advice on YouTube to an audience of perhaps zero to one.
In 2006 Bo Burnham himself burst onto laptop screens as a real life YouTube sensation, playing piano and singing funny original songs about his own insecurities. Now only age 27, he has since attracted over 250 million views and has achieved award-worthy recognition for his first feature film.
The role of social media in this film, and in our lives, cannot be overstated. Burnham knows it and nails it. Josh Hamilton, playing Mark Day, struggles to connect with tuned-out Kayla at the dinner table. He is able to gain only one-word responses from his social media distracted daughter, who is horrified at the idea of having a conversation with her father. He digs himself into a deeper and deeper hole by insisting that she unplug just long enough to talk at length about one thing – just one thing. Later he seals his fate by secretly following her on a trip to the mall where she hangs out with new friends for the first time.
Kayla’s transformation from sixth grader to high-schooler by way of middle school becomes a tangible and painful trip down memory lane when the graduating class is presented with individual time capsules created two years earlier. The brightly decorated shoebox is filled with memorabilia and a video message-in-a-bottle carried from the past by a SpongeBob thumb drive. A surreal video from sixth grade Kayla asks future Kayla, “Do you have a boyfriend? Are you an amazing person?” Confronting her former self results in a scene that I won’t entirely divulge here. It is a heartwarming father/daughter exchange over a backyard bonfire in which Dad finally gets it right.
There are pivotal moments in life, if you’re a self-aware deeper thinker, not unlike the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. I recall a time in fifth grade when some of my friends first became interested in girls. Suddenly, it seemed as if they got on a bus that several of us hadn’t even seen coming. It was the day I asked my friend Bill, “Hey, you wanna play baseball” and was met with, “No, I’m hanging out with Kelly, Barry and Andrea today.” Not everyone morphs at the same time or in the same way. Bill was also the first person I knew to get a divorce, well before our ten-year high school reunion. The rest of us got on a bus too. Just not that first one.
Along Kayla’s journey are Aiden, played by Luke Prael. He’s the sleepy-eyed cool kid who strolls through scenes to a music track of Kayla’s own imagining. Her crush leads her to boast to him about her library of nude selfies. That gets his attention, and he then asks if she does another very specific attention getting thing. She runs home to do some research and is essentially grossed out by what she finds on Google.
The transition to high school comes complete with a shadow program. Enter Olivia (Emily Robinson), a wonderfully positive role model who includes Kayla in her own group of friends, but inadvertently sets in motion a situation that potentially heads toward date rape. This is a painful scene that leaves the viewer wondering just what kind of turn this movie is going to take.
Along comes Gabe (Jake Ryan), an awkward chance encounter at a pool party scene slightly reminiscent of The Graduate, whose snorkel and diving mask certify his membership in nerd culture. He is more at Kayla’s level, and eventually has her over for a dinner of chicken nuggets and french fries. He adorably presents Kayla with a row of every flavor of dipping sauce in a neatly arranged line of brightly colored containers. His heart is right where it belongs at this critical time in Kayla’s evolution.
I’ve frequently thought about going back to school. I think second or third grade would be about right. It definitely wouldn’t be eighth grade. But if you’d like to immerse yourself for ninety minutes in that particular crucible of terror where budding adolescents are locked away for two years for lack of a better institution, you’ll thoroughly enjoy being there. It's the womb where mean girls are born, hormones begin to boil over and childhood ends. Just be glad when you move on to high school. Of course, that’s an entirely more horrifying story. Perhaps Burnham’s next project? By all means, see Eighth Grade. But don’t watch it with your own eighth grader. They’ll run screaming.
Eighth Grade (2018) runs one hour, 33 minutes and is rated R.
Should you see this movie?