I didn’t really realize it at the time but the early 2000s, when I was a teenager was something of a low point for teen movies and coming of age films. The 90s weren’t a whole lot better of course, that was the decade of the “teen movie starring WB Network actor” with stuff like Cruel Intentions and Varsity Blues but there were some highlights as well like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Rushmore and even American Pie was a bit more insightful than its reputation would suggest. The 80s were also seen as something of a golden age, mainly because of Cameron Crowe and John Hughes, but the early 2000s? Total wasteland. There was Mean Girls I suppose, which I’m not the biggest fan of but certainly has some thought behind it. I guess there was also Ghost World if you want to count that, but that’s pretty far from the mainstream. Outside of that though there was mostly crap… I think. Honestly I’ve never seen a lot of it but when I google “2000s teen movies” I mostly get titles like What A Girl Wants, The Girl Next Door, Eurotrip, and a whole bunch of other titles that no one has talked about in years and no one really cared about at the time. Then I graduate high school in 2006 and suddenly we get a wave of movies like Superbad and Juno which are actually interested in doing some fun and thoughtful things with the genre. Now we’re almost in something of a golden age of movies about teenagers like Boyhood, The Edge of Seventeen, and Lady Bird. Granted the actual teenagers of the era seem kind of indifferent to the trend but even the mainstream stuff like The Fault in Our Stars looks more respectable than the likes of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. This golden age would seem to continue with the new film about early adolescence: Eighth Grade.
As the title implies, this is a film about someone in the eighth grade (meaning they’re 13-14 years old) named Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher). Kayla lives with her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) and her mother does not appear to be in the picture. Kayla is not popular, at all, to the point where she doesn’t even really appear to have any friends. She does, however, take the initiative to record rather inarticulate Youtube videos where she gives advice about questions she very decidedly hasn’t worked out for herself. The film begins on the last week of middle school for Kayla, where she has been given the dubious honor of being voted “most quiet” by her fellow students, an award that a middle school should probably not be putting on their ballots. Over the course of that final week she will pine after a popular boy named Aiden (Luke Prael), attend the pool party of a classmate named Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), and shadow a high schooler named Olivia (Emily Robinson).
When the movie Lady Bird came out last year I remember there being articles about Saoirse Ronan opting not to use makeup to clear up some acne in order to more accurately portray the face of a teenager. I saw one article rather hyperbolically proclaim this decision “revolutionary” and while I like that movie and that performance I do find any assertion that it was some kind of blow for representing the plight of the average looking people of the world to be kind of ridiculous and Eighth Grade does a pretty good job of putting the lie to that little talking point. If Saoirse Ronan was “bold” for making slight amounts of acne (barely) visible in that movie then Elsie Fisher is downright fearless in her willingness to show way more skin imperfections than Ronan ever did and the movie also isn’t exactly hiding the fact that this character is kind of overweight, at least by movie standards, and the characters’ insecurities about this come to the forefront during a particularly tense pool party scene. Kayla is never actively bullied for her appearance but she is decidedly not popular and has become socially isolated both in real life and in her various social media escapades.
This movie is not, however, under any impression that Kayla’s problems only run skin deep as her personality does play as much of a role in her social status as her looks. Early on in one of her videos Kayla says that her YouTube videos haven’t been getting a lot of views, and it’s pretty easy to tell why this is: it’s not because the world is cruel, it’s because her videos kind of suck. The film’s audience finds them interesting because they offer some insights into our protagonist, but on their face they’re rambling inanities produced by someone who (at this point in life) has almost nothing of interest to contribute. One can imagine that striking up real conversations with Kayla would yield similar results. At one point she says “I don’t talk a lot at school but if people talk to me, and stuff, they’d find that I’m, like, very funny and cool and talkative” but there’s very little evidence to be found in the film that this is actually true. The few moments where she actually does interact with other kids her own age she seems so filled with nerves and so out of practice at interactions and so lacking in talking points in general that she tends to just come across as weird. Most teen movies are about people who merely think they’re social outcasts but this one is about someone who actually is.
Now, I’ve been pretty blunt in talking about Kayla and her shortcomings but I’m not doing it to be mean to this fictional character, frankly I do it because I see a lot of my former self (and if I’m being honest, my current self as well) in her. Like, to the point where the movie is hard for me to review without getting a bit more personal than I’d like to. The film was directed by Bo Burnham a twenty seven year old standup comedian whose previous work I am not really familiar with. A lot of people have wondered why this guy would be so able to get into the mind of a post-millennial girl like this, but seeing the film it makes sense. This isn’t really a movie about what it’s like to be a girl or even what it’s like to be part of Generation Z so much as it’s a movie about what it’s like to be a true introvert. There are plenty of moments here I can relate to a bit too well: desperately not wanting to go to a party that you’ve been given an invitation to at the behest of the host’s mother, posting things online only to have most of the world not give a shit, getting “busted” hiding out in a corner rather than conversing with others, general befuddlement about the life advice “be yourself,” the list goes on. It’s about as close as any coming of age movie has gotten to reflecting my own experiences, which you’d think would make me love the movie and in one sense that’s true, I certainly appreciate what it’s doing and on the other hand it kind of makes the movie hard to watch for me. Some of the film’s moments of awkwardness and cringe inducing social interactions almost gave me a sort of PTSD-like flashback to some of the less pleasant moments of my own adolescence. As such watching the movie was in many ways a more tense experience than watching most full-on horror movies.
So how does this compare to the other big coming of age movies of the era: Boyhood and Lady Bird? Well, I’ve explained why I consider it a bit more relatable and accurate than both of them, but I’m not sure I’d call it better. There are certainly some problems to be found in it. I feel like the movie could have done a little more to define what Kayla is like when she isn’t being socially awkward. Does she have a hobby aside from making advice videos? Does she have ambitions? Does she read or watch movies? In some ways the film remains just as oblivious to Late in the film she offhandedly mentions that she likes the show “Rick and Morty” and that tiny tidbit almost seems to say more about her interests than most the rest of the film. I also think the audio of Kayla’s Youtube videos played ironically over a contradictory point in her life is a device that the movie probably uses a few too many times. Also there’s a moment in a car late in the film which, while tense and interesting in its own right, does sort of feel like a bit of a tangent from the rest of the themes and conflicts of the film and doesn’t quite feel like the right climax. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by Eighth Grade, it’s an extremely honest film that displays a perspective that I don’t think has ever really shown up on film before, at least not in the same way. I may never want to watch this movie again, but I’m sure glad it exists.
**** out of Five