Illustration by Sophie Devaney
Ahh, middle school. Puberty and pre-teen angst epitomized an awkward and uncomfortable time in our lives that many of us would love to forget. For some, middle school brings back fun and nostalgic memories, reminiscent of a happier and less stressful time in our lives. However, for the vast majority of people, middle school was a scary, painful, and pointlessly cruel three years. Lost in the epic existential crisis of figuring out who we are and where we belong in a merciless world. We’ve all seen the awkward, nerdy, and relatable kids who are supposed to remind us of this period in movies. However, it’s rare that we see a character who we can so deeply empathize with on a personal level in a film.
Eighth Grade, directed by Bo Burnham, confidently shows the power that a film can have in bringing back painful yet weirdly beautiful memories. It is hard to imagine a more relatable character then the protagonist of the film, Kayla Day, played by Elsie Fisher, who so perfectly finds a way to embody almost every uncomfortable and awkward aspect of the unwanted transition from kid to teenager. A truly real film with an expertly cast set of characters, Eighth Grade succeeds wonderfully in using the lens of a shy and anxious girl to remind us how hard finding ourselves was, and how beautiful it can be when it comes to fruition.
We find Kayla in her final week of eighth grade, as she gets ready to head off to high school. The film introduces her as she is filming a Youtube video: ironically focused on the importance of “being yourself.” As Kayla stumbles through her monologue with a sense of self consciousness, the viewer realizes that Kayla is talking about an idea that is a foreign concept to her. While watching this opening scene, one of the first things that really sticks out to the viewer is Kayla Day herself.
The character we are given is far from the beautiful, typically older actors and actresses with perfect complexion and a sense of inexplicable self confidence that are typically used to portray 13-year-olds in TV shows and movies. What we see on screen is an acne covered, albeit real life fifteen year old girl, with terrible sense of style and a disposition that screams of inner turmoil and a longing to figure out who she really is.
When Kayla goes to school at the beginning of her final week, it becomes quickly apparent that she is not the confident, popular girl that she clearly wishes she was. She envies many of the girls in the film. Her envy is highlighted consistently by her awkward attempts to fit in with the other girls through cringe-worthy comments and uncomfortable conversations. As a viewer, it almost hurts to watch because you can tell Kayla has nothing in common with these girls, and doesn’t really like them, but regardless believes they are the people that she should be around. This reminds us how hard it can be to fit in, and of the times in our lives when we aren’t always quite sure who our real friends are.
One of the best aspects of the film is the relationship between Kayla and her dad. Throughout the film, her dad, played by Josh Hamilton, continues to try to connect with his uninterested daughter. In his attempts to bring them closer together, he is constantly rejected by Kayla, who is still in the stage of life where she wants nothing to do with him. Their interactions are painful and awkward, and Kayla spends much of her screentime with him yelling, or being very closed.
Yet there a few conversations between them and a handful of moments between them, that are so truly raw and beautiful that the line between movie and real life becomes extremely fuzzy. Instead of two movie characters, we see the very real relationship between father and teenage daughter without the awkwardness of forced acting.
Where this movie succeeds particularly is how little it acts as a movie. Nothing is sensationalized; there is no sort of visible epiphany, no great kiss scene, no type of incredible transformation in Kayla’s appearance. Every transition is uncomfortable, every conversation cringe-worthy, and every triumph extremely awkward. But that’s middle school. Middle school is not beautiful, it’s not a time of great leaps and bounds as we easily figure out things around us. It’s a time of awkward, uneven steps and a time of failing and struggling. Living out that journey vicariously through Kayla Day is a touchingly beautiful experience that more than deserves the recognition that it is getting.