Seeing Eighth Grade with Eighth Graders

So, I waffled between seeing The Spy Who Dumped Me and Eighth Grade to get the best value out of my final weeks of Movie Pass and turns out I couldn’t see the early showing of either film with Movie Pass and that was all I had time to do, reinforcing my decision mere minutes earlier to cancel the service (someone will get that service right, but it won’t be Mitch Lowe and the gang).

Eighth Grade was higher on my list. I also know that I will have to see it to have a valid Top Ten list at the end of the year, everyone who sees it loves it (well, critics, more on that in a moment). The cherry on top was that it’s only 90 minutes. I had just gone to the dentist and I couldn’t eat for awhile (you could say Eighth Grade was exactly what the dentist ordered). Seeing Eighth Grade also seemed to offer the possibility that I would actually and finally get a movie theater all to myself. I thought the 11:25 AM showing of Eighth Grade on a Wednesday would be a pretty good shot at that experience.

Not even close.

The possibility of the solo screening ended pretty early with a ragtag group of dedicated moviegoers joining me. And then, almost at the last possible moment, a small pack of middle school girls herded by someone I would presume to be a kind of den mother hustled into the theater, popcorn, drinks and all. They settled into the row behind me. It was hard to gauge their exact ages, but these girls were all very much of the same age as Elsie Fisher’s Kayla Day, the lead in the movie. And that was a kind of instant feedback for the movie that I found absolutely next level riveting.

For one thing, the film elicited a constant push pull in these girls and their running commentary (I’m not gonna begrudge their movie etiquette — being able to hear their barely whispers was amazing): they simultaneously recognized themselves and found themselves alienated by the movie. “That’s me” one girl said as Kayla describes herself and moments later, probably in the run up to the pool party, they were all aghast at the choices Kayla was making. In their immediate reception of the movie, these eighth graders didn’t quite rise to the level where they could interrogate their reaction to the movie, but what the hell is the matter with me, why would they? Anyway.

The vast majority of Eighth Grade is socially awkward and, more or less, quotidian. Kayla is gritting her teeth and surviving through the last week of the titular grade and generally fumbling her way around trying to be a human being in a hyper digital age. Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher are incredibly effective at conveying Kayla’s struggle with self worth and the duality she experiences between the confidence to make videos and put them out into the world, and her utter lack of confidence in the presence of real people . The film is stylistically innovative, blending Kayla’s face and the screen content she’s devouring in soft focus, her screen and our focus on her filling the frame, as her halting self help inner monologue plays out on her YouTube channel accompanied by Anna Meredith’s brilliant pop-noise score. My eighth grade companions were not impressed with Kayla’s life choices and they weren’t necessarily marveling at the astonishing acting that Elsie Fisher was putting on display for us, but they felt it, they felt embarrassment, they recognized struggle and failure. In time, they might appreciate the insane amount of willpower Kayla uses to force herself to bridge that gap between her idea of herself and the rest of the world’s. They groaned along with the rest of us at the pained and lame attempts of the adults in the school to connect with the kids (don’t dab, y’all, just . . . don’t do it), easily the most authentic part of the movie for me.

Sharing the theater with those middle school girls would only have been mildly interesting except for the two high intensity sequences in the film that freaked out my eighth grade companions (and judging by the weird R-rating on this film, the MPAA). Eighth Grade is not a plot heavy film and I don’t think I will ruin it by discussing the two parts of this film that wrestle directly with teen sexuality, but here it is, your obligatory, spoiler alert. Bo Burnham offers up some pretty gutsy stuff in this movie. He does not pretend, as we as a culture are wont to do, that being sexually inexperienced and young means you don’t have sexual thoughts, you aren’t curious about sex, you don’t pretend to know more about it than you do in an effort to impress a peer or a potential romantic partner.

Kayla has a crush on this jock, Aiden, who’s a bit of a tool (and who my middle schoolers thought was quite ugly). She learns that he’s into dirty pictures and then uses the opportunity posed by an active shooter drill to pretend that she has some such photos on her phone in a flailing attempt to get his attention. Aiden wonders if she’s into blow jobs and in her infinite naïveté and in the very moments after the teacher turns the lights back on and she gets scolded by her teacher, she pretends that she is and that she’s good at them. Reader, it will not surprise you that Kayla has no idea what a blow job is and the next few moments of the film are Kayla discovering what they are and forcing herself to learn how to do it with a fruit she absolutely hates. During this sequence, I was particular sensitive to my eighth grade companions and their sense of dread, because I not only felt the dread of not wanting to see what mistake Kayla might make, I felt their own dread as well. “Don’t do it,” said one of them at one point, echoing everyone’s feelings at that moment. The blow job sequence ends with a pretty fun emotional outburst as Kayla can’t pretend she likes bananas in front of her father.

The other scene is much more uncomfortable. It does not end in a joke, at all. There was palpable terror behind me as this incredibly difficult scene played out between Kayla and a high school boy in the back of a parked car late at night. “I don’t want to see this,” was the repeated comment from the seats behind me. You said it, kid, you said it.

That scene is very rough, but it’s also profoundly important for defining the stakes of Kayla’s life. Eighth Grade does not let us drift away from Kayla’s sentimental education as something that is low stakes and just socially awkward: the emotional balance of her life is at risk and not from the screen, not from technology, from the oldest of old fashioned sources: a boy who knows just enough to get other people in serious trouble.

I would later learn that this mom, or this older lady, perhaps an aunt, she had the hovering protective attentiveness of a mother, but idk, found out that friends of theirs had walked out of Eighth Grade, a fact that astonished them when the film was over in just over 90 minutes and nothing like what they had been warned about happened. They were flabbergasted when the movie ended and nothing truly awful had happened. That’s actually when I learned that Eighth Grade was rated R, which gasted my flabber in turn. I’m beyond impressed that this lady and these girls conducted this experiment, committed themselves to seeing this movie for themselves. I feel pretty lucky to have been a part of that screening.

This isn’t a review of the movie, it’s mostly just a long damn anecdote, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that one of the joys of Eighth Grade is that gangly uncomfortable Kayla is more than a match for the most harsh challenges she experiences, even if she is far from being a great human being who makes all the right decisions. I don’t know that my middle schoolers appreciated that or the beauty of the movie they just watched, but that stuff isn’t necessarily meant for them, not yet. Eighth Grade is meant for those of us who think we are beyond the simple problems of middle school because it’s a reminder that those problems aren’t simple and they never were. It’s a pretty excellent and wonderful and uncomfortable reminder that we are not beyond those problems at all, they are the problems that define us throughout our lives and the most important thing to remember is that we can be getting better all the time.