If You Don’t Relate to ‘Eighth Grade,’ You’ve Forgotten What Being 13 Was Like

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Eighth Grade film
Seeing “Eighth Grade” at the Montclair Film Festival, where director Bo Burnham talked with young viewers. Photo by Cheryl Corman/Montclair Film via Flickr

In Eighth Grade, comedian Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, we get to know 13-year-old Kayla Day, played by Elsie Fisher, as she navigates through her last week of eighth grade, and she prepares herself for graduation and high school.

If eighth grade was awkward years ago, it’s even more awkward now, and Kayla really shows us that. And this doesn’t come without obstacles.

One of her biggest challenges is that she’s very awkward, even to the point of being cringy. I’ve seen that people are a bit bothered by this fact, but anyone who thinks she’s not a realistic character must not remember what middle school was really like.

She pushes through her days, navigating past mean girls and cute boys who all take a toll on her. It’s like she’s a walking reminder of the nightmare that is middle school.

When I saw Elsie on the screen, all I could think about was how much she acted like me when I was her age. I was painfully awkward at that age too, and I think that’s what made her character so personable. You really feel like you’re right there with her.

Watching Kayla awkwardly tell a girl she likes her shirt or tell the boy she has a crush on she sometimes charges her phone too is like a trainwreck you can’t look away from. But it’s somehow one you’ve experienced too.

Kayla deals with her middle school struggles in the most Generation Z way possible — YouTube videos. When she gets home from school, she switches on her laptop and we hear the beeps of her camera. She stammers and stutters and really pours her heart out into these vlogs about growing up and being yourself, only for them to get two views. However, this doesn’t stop her from making them.

This too was very relatable to me. When I was in middle school, I ran a similarly unsuccessful Tumblr blog based on all my interests. Regardless of the fact that I didn’t have many followers, I still updated it everyday out of pure passion. Kayla’s similar perseverance is admirable.

While she may not be completely confident or comfortable with herself, her spirit shines through in her character. She’s wise beyond her years in a way that I still wish I could be sometimes. Yes, she’s awkward but there’s something about her that makes you wish you had the nerve to say what she says.

Probably the most important theme of the film is the constant use of social media. For much of it, the characters’ eyes are glued to their phones. In fact, one of the most important scenes of the film is when Kayla lays in bed just scrolling through her phone. She spends seemingly hours checking Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

Her addiction to social media leads her to spend most of her day on it, and have her whole life revolve around it. In one scene, she wakes up in the morning and does a full face of makeup, only to lay in bed again and take a selfie captioned, “Just woke up like this.”

This was eye-opening for me. Social media was around when I was in middle school too, but it didn’t seem to be on the same level as seen in Eighth Grade. Instagram was only available on iPhones, which not everyone had, and none of my friends even had Snapchat.

I don’t judge her use of it, though, because it’s very telling of today’s times. Social media can be a refuge.

If there’s one con the film had, it’s that I wish it had more activism, as well as more queer representation.

In 2018, it almost seems like it’s a trend to be “woke,” which is something the film lacked. I was hoping I’d see Kayla portrayed as a feminist and an activist. If there’s anything that has changed in the years since I was in middle school, it’s that it’s now considered cool to be socially aware. When I was in middle school, kids went out of their way to troll and be racist or rude.

But times have changed, and the very social media that has helped younger kids like Kayla is also educating them on social issues.

In regard to queer representation, I completely understand that the plotline revolves around Kayla alone, not giving much room for development on any other character, but it would have been nice to see her have queer classmates. Younger teens are feeling more comfortable coming out at younger ages, like middle school. Queer people still exist, even if we aren’t at the center of the story.

Overall, I loved Eighth Grade. It truly felt like one of the realest depictions of middle school I’ve ever seen in a film. Middle school is awkward and cringey, and that’s okay. We don’t have to sugarcoat our experiences to make them seem better than they were. Kayla really showed us that.

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