Eighth Grade: A Tough Way to Grow Up
In the film, Eighth Grade, teen, Kayla (Elsie Fisher), is making a series of YouTube advice videos for girls her age. She confides to viewers that she speaks little at school and that’s the way she likes it. Or does she?
After her first YouTube post, Kayla attends an awards assembly at school for graduating eighth graders. She receives an award for “most quiet” which embarrasses her even though she knows she has earned it. Although the faculty have clearly intended the recognition to be amusing, surprisingly, no one laughs. Later, these same graduates unearth their personal time capsules from the Sixth Grade. (More about time capsules later).
The film is full of many expected situations. Naturally, Kayla has her eye on a boy at school named Aiden (Luke Prael). She sees him in the hall. Hears another girl saying Aiden called her a foul name and that he sent her dirty pictures. Curious about this interaction, Kayla later checks the internet for sex acts and uses a banana as a prop. Her father (Joshua Hamilton) walks in, oblivious to what is actually happening, Kayla away yelling from the embarrassment only she knows about. This and some other pretty typical events experienced by early teens prevail through out the film.
During a guided tour of high school, Kayla is paired with a high school girl Olivia (Emily Robinson). Olivia invites Kayla to hang out at the mall. Dad of course has to drive. She’s embarrassed to be seen with him, but being a dad with a young teen he covertly keeps an eye on her. Kayla enjoys being with the high school kids who are more independent and have bigger egos than eighth graders. They are argumentative and seem so aware. She's actually having a good time, until she notices her father spying on her. She is overly angry about the situation but after a sincere heart to heart they both accept the other's behavior because they know that the only family they have is each other. That's your warm family moment.
Although, the movie can be disturbing, I thought about seeing it again. Maybe I missed something. The characters seem sent from another world. I’ve seen other school-kid movies. I especially enjoyed Amy Heckerling’s movies (Clueless, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), but Eighth Grade takes the cake for rarified set-ups. Maybe it’s an excellent commentary on the current milieu of growing up. But, I don’t appreciate the attitude, characters, or plot. The tension is unresolved. The kids seemed to practice roll playing. Kayla is absorbed in the internet. School frightens and alienates her, because all the kids seem goofy and mean, except for Olivia, and Gabe (Jake Ryan), a boy Kayla meets at a pool party. They appear to be sensitive and likable.
Kayla’s relationship with Olivia and her Dad help her to see out of the box. After all the chaos and anxiety of being in eighth grade, Kayla comes out of it upon graduation and turns hopeful. With little trepidation, she looks forward to high school. Kayla’s symbolic act of leaving her past behind is burning her sixth grade time capsule. But then she goes and makes another one for eighth grade and buries it in the back yard. Is this a way to bury those memories?
How are kids learning about life and growing up? What values do they have? Well, Kayla prays and repels a boy who wants to have sex with her. Before the graduation ceremony, she tells the most popular girl in eighth grade that she is snobby and shallow. Kayla and her father have a meaningful talk near the end of the movie that brings them closer together and Kayla sees she is OK. But the father sounds insincere. It could be poor acting or poor dialogue. Her date with Gabe, who she met at the pool party, seemed more sincere than anything else in the movie. Too bad the movie didn’t travel along the same path as the date scene.
So, at the end, Kayla is ready to sail off to high school. She wants to experience life as a participant and drops her isolating internet show. It’s a hopeful ending, but it’s not a funny or feel good movie. Maybe the message is: Every stage of life has its challenges and somehow you survive. Maybe along the way you have some real joy, but you have to pass though life’s soul burning fires in the process.