– By James Powers –
In many ways, I think most of us never quite grew out of the awkward terror of middle school. If this weren’t the case, how else would A24 have expected to successfully market its R-rated Eighth Grade? What would the target adult demographic have found compelling about a movie focused on that phase of life, if they weren’t somehow still trapped in it themselves (albeit without braces and at least a little less acne)? After all, Lord knows none of us want to relive those years. And yet it seems clear, from the film’s widespread acclaim, that its portrayal of this tortured little period has struck a chord with both audiences and critics.
For those who don’t know, Eighth Grade focuses on the adventures and trials of Kayla Day, a sensitive, anxious young girl on the verge of escaping (cough cough I mean graduating) from middle school. Her adventures and trials, though, are nothing like the Goonies-era nostalgia or brooding Oscar bait that we usually think of when we hear “coming of age.” Kayla’s experiences are very contemporary, largely mundane, and yet shockingly poignant. Believe it or not, you probably experience some of the same existential angst that a 13-year-old girl does, and even for some of the same reasons.
Or at least, to my surprise, I’ve discovered that I do.
Part of this is due to a relatively recent phenomenon that the movie cannily detects, without ever stating outright. The mobile era has removed cultural boundaries between age groups: the omnipresence of content, especially on social media, has leveled the playing field in a way, pushing kids into adolescence faster and keeping millennials in their adolescence, culturally speaking. Everyone is getting compressed into that 18 to 30-something bracket, because we are all swimming in a culture that is fixated on it. For example: my dad, my little brothers and I all laugh at the same memes. A completely inexperienced 13-year-old girl can easily consult YouTube for advice on how to – aheeerrrm – perform favors for males (a word of consolation for concerned parents: she does not end up following said advice). Same 13-year-old girl scrolls restlessly through her Instagram feed, at once entranced and dejected by the filtered beauty of the world it presents. And I’ve experienced that confusing emotional jumble at the hands of Instagram many times myself – but I’m a male pushing 30. Is that weird, or is it to be expected?
I should say, however, that this age-compression isn’t entirely a bad thing. Eighth Grade uses it as a vehicle for anxiety but also for empathy: it pokes at this phenomenon and finds there a cluster of nerves that people of all ages in the social-media era have in common. We see this most clearly through the film’s (literal) use of devices: Kayla’s phone and computer are characters unto themselves, much as they are for many of us. They are simultaneously her muses and the harassing little demons on her shoulder. They keep her constantly plugged in to an entire chattering world of music and laughter and beauty, ego and cruelty and indifference, a world much bigger than the one past pre-teens had to deal with.
When I was a middle-schooler, I primarily had to worry about the impressions of my classmates. One of the biggest trials I faced was the obnoxious kid with the locker next to mine who pestered me into telling him who I had a crush on, and then proceeded to tell all the other 6th-graders. Now, however, as I attempt to put myself out there on social media as an artist and a young professional, I have to worry about the impressions of the entire world. Kayla, who struggles to promote her own YouTube channel, has to worry about the same thing – more than a decade earlier in life than I did – while still also wrestling with acne, and self-comparison to the alpha females in her class, and wolfish attention from older guys that she only barely understands. The screens in her life have taken the childish insecurity endemic to middle school and refracted it into a grown-up-sized sense of inadequacy. She is constantly anxious, to the point of suffering a minor panic attack when faced with having to be seen in a bathing suit. After all, it is hard enough to compare your body to those of the prettiest girls in class, but even harder when you have to also compare it to those of the countless photogenic women you scroll past every day.
Self-comparison, agonizingly amplified by the digital age, is constantly throbbing at the center of Eighth Grade. To use an oft-quoted line from Pixar’s The Incredibles, “when everyone is super, no one will be.” When everyone has their own online celebrity presence mediated through photos and videos and tweets, then failure to really be a presence – to be validated through the rather tyrannical system of likes and shares and reblogs – is all the more crushing. Despite her efforts to “put herself out there,” Kayla is voted “most quiet” by her classmates, and this kills her. She desperately wants to be seen, and is terrified of what will happen when she finally is. As the audience, we spend much of our time sharing this pain with Kayla, hovering around her in smothering close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots.
The good news is that this tension is not the whole story. It is eased eventually, although not in the way Kayla was hoping for. Unlike many coming-of-age films, Eighth Grade doesn’t end with its young protagonist proving herself to the world. The only people she “convinces” of her worth are those who never doubted it in the first place; if anything, it is these individuals who actually convince her. Central among these is her father, Mark, an affectionate but very un-cool single parent who tries repeatedly to communicate to Kayla how special she really is. But it isn’t until Kayla has been harshly burned in her search for validation, and is beginning to despair of ever finding it, that he is finally able to get through.
“Do I make you sad?” Kayla asks him towards the film’s end, revealing how deep her self-doubt has set in by this point.
“What…? No!” He is shocked, almost tripping over his words as he responds. “Kayla… I’m always so unbelievably happy that I get to be your dad.” Then he adds the real clincher: “If you could see yourself the way I see you…I promise, you wouldn’t be scared anymore.”
If you could see yourself the way I see you – And all of a sudden, the joke is on Kayla. Turns out, she has been seen the whole time, and not only seen but loved. The enormous affection that Mark holds for his daughter seems almost irrational at times, as for much of the movie she only responds to it with exasperated indifference. But he persists in it, stubbornly, unconditionally, even dweebishly. The voices in Kayla’s head – that of her father, and that of the world – never really change their tune throughout the course of her journey. But eventually she figures out which voice is the one she should be listening to.
For those of us with some experience in Christian spirituality, this should sound deeply familiar. At the end of Eighth Grade, one young character asks another, suddenly and rather bluntly: “Do you believe in God?” The answer turns out to be yes. Then, as pre-pubescent brains tend to do, they switch to a completely different topic – Rick and Morty I think, if memory serves. But that question kind of stays lodged in place. It mixes in with all the other chatter and voices in the film, turning the volume up on some and gently shushing others, and as the credits roll it stays, subconsciously bouncing through our heads, its wording changed slightly but fundamentally the same:
Who do you believe? Whose voice do you listen to? That of the ones who truly love you, or the many many others who say they wish that you were someone else? Does your worth come from your achievements, your number of followers, your appearance, your wit, your weight? Or does it come from the fact that you are loved? Before the film’s beginning, a younger Kayla had left a note for her future self, calling her “the coolest girl in the world.” At her lowest point, present-day Kayla despairingly burns that note. But then at the end, she leaves another note for her future self. She’s a little older, a little wiser, but nonetheless she echoes the sentiment from her past: “Stay cool. I can’t wait to be you.”
Because she gets it now: when you understand yourself first and foremost as one who is loved, rather than as an influencer, or an achiever, or any other form of popular kid – that’s when you can love being you. That’s when it suddenly becomes less painful to live in your own skin. And whether we’re 13 or 103, that’s something that all of us want.
About the Author
James Powers is currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.