I had expected to cringe at the inevitable awkwardness I knew I’d find in the movie “Eighth Grade.” However, I was thoroughly surprised to find myself cringing in response to much deeper themes of anxiety and uncertainty, which are at the height of that period of braces, backpacks and awkward photos we all banish from memory.
“Eighth Grade,” released this July, follows eighth-grader Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) as she approaches her graduation from middle school. It’s an impressive debut for director Bo Burnham, who is best known for his stand-up comedy. Holding an unflinching gaze on the current experience of middle schoolers in the United States, “Eighth Grade” proves that this demographic, often considered a shallow source for movie material, merits attention.
The film presents a realistic portrayal of middle-school life in the modern era. Kayla embodies the typical middle class, suburban, American adolescent experience; she lives with her dad (Josh Hamilton), attends school, spends a lot of time on her iPhone and makes personal videos in her free time. After winning the “Most Quiet” superlative in school, she begins to evaluate her time in middle school while undergoing a series of mundane encounters — attending a pool party where she doesn’t know anyone, talking to her crush, shadowing a high schooler for a day — that feel anything but mundane to Kayla. Refreshingly, the middle schoolers here look like they are actually in middle school (Elsie Fisher, the actor who plays Kayla, is now 15 and had just graduated from eighth grade when filming started).
Social media, a subject Burnham knows well thanks to his humble YouTube beginning, is a prominent feature of this new landscape; in Kayla’s generation, virtually every student has been using Snapchat since fifth grade, and one’s social media presence is a concrete element of one’s identity. The specific realities of growing up in this strange new social climate come to light in the film, and it’s apparent that the stakes are higher than ever. Growing dangers of the modern world poke into the middle-school bubble as well. For instance, a drill for school shootings reminds us that middle schoolers, just kids, must also engage with the disturbing realities of contemporary America. Later in the film, a high-school senior makes a pass at Kayla in a frighteningly uncomfortable game of truth or dare that stops just short of being tragic. It’s an unsettling moment that speaks to the palpable fear of assault faced by too many women at a young age.
As much as Kayla’s challenges stem from the specificity of middle-school life in 2018, I would argue that this is, perhaps more than anything, a film about mental health. Social anxiety is all over this movie, and the fact that it is not framed explicitly makes it all the more painful. It’s a reality which Kayla does not yet have the vocabulary for, yet pervades every experience like a mysterious substance in the air. Burnham, who channeled his own experiences with anxiety into the direction of this movie, intended to show how these tiny moments in Kayla’s life are sources of real fear. Through intense music plays over mundane actions, awkward dialogue and Fischer’s superb performance, “Eighth Grade” successfully translates this anxiety to the viewer. This exploration of mental health is simultaneously its most jarring and praiseworthy quality.
Through pointing its lens towards the specific experience of middle school, “Eighth Grade” cuts to the core of the universal. The film is a portrait of unsettling uncertainty, a condition which feels particularly pertinent to the undergraduate limbo. After all, as college students we are in the process of confronting the reality of our dreams for the first time and re-socializing ourselves as pseudo-adults in a new community, all while navigating a culture rife with elevated expectations. “Eighth Grade” feels so hard to watch because the sentiments that felt most intense back then have not completely left our lives; they have simply become permanent.
The film casts a raw picture of the questions that never truly leave us — is what we have built meaningful and is it enough? While complete self-assurance is never provided, the truth is that we exit the difficulties of middle school simply because we grow up. We come to understand ourselves and learn to be happy with the fact of never-quite-knowing. The most wonderful thing, as shown by this movie, is that what feels like jarring uncertainty is not disqualification of value. The process of growth is itself a beautiful thing, and every moment is deserving of all the attention we can give.