Going for a walk around the neighborhood, I spied several banners hung over front doors and balloons tied to mailboxes. Jeanne graduated from Arizona State University. Stephen just finished his stint at Wheat Ridge High School. Brittany also graduated, but from schools unknown with burgundy and gold colors.
These were to be their salad days, but life has a way of intervening. Passing these houses, I thought of how Kayla, the protagonist of Eighth Grade, might have handled a coronavirus pandemic. Journaling and goal construction would certainly be part of it.
If we take the movie as a documentary, then Kayla left eighth grade in 2018. That means she would be wrapping up her sophomore year of high school this month. Next year she would start looking at colleges. Life never stops coronavirus or not. From Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 49, “Kid, you’re gonna go far.”
Meet Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher); she’s 13, lives in a suburban home with her single father (Josh Hamilton), and is about as put together as you might expect a 13-year-old to be.
Practically bursting at the seams with personality, thoughts, and feelings, Kayla has transformed her living spaces into a physical manifestation of her inner mantras. Her mirror is covered with Post-It notes—all containing some form of positive reinforcement—and her school notebooks are bursting with columns of goals and how to attain them. Both provide the basis of her web video series, half how-to, half digital diary—each one is an unedited, first-take success. If she were two decades older, Kayla would make for a first-rate life coach.
The only thing standing in her way is adolescence. She isn’t as skinny as the popular girls, doesn’t have stunning social skills, or the attention of her crush, Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), a mumbling teen so disinterested with the world he barely registers a pulse until sex is mentioned.
In another movie, Kayla might be the fat friend (though she is hardly overweight) or a mere punchline. Eighth Grade is not that movie. Here, Kayla is the beginning, middle, and end. She tries to make friends at school, but it doesn’t go well. She meets a friendly kid (Jake Ryan) at a pool party, but she’d rather stare at Riley’s low-slung swim trunks. She makes friends with a group of high school seniors, but that carries myriad problems to navigate. It’s not easy being 13, but neither is being 14, 15, 16…
Written and directed by Bo Burnham (a multi-hyphenate stand-up comedian), Eighth Grade is a neo-realist look at the average suburban American middle schooler with inflections of a horror film. Some scenes you identify with—but with the distance of 10, 20, maybe 30 years—others transport you back to those awful years and make your whole body cringe. Then there’s a situation Kayla unknowingly places herself in, and you see what’s coming a mile away. The world is littered with mines.
In between all these moments, Kayla records her web videos. And though they don’t directly comment on the action, it’s foolish not to read them that way. The two most profound of these are the ones that open and close Eighth Grade. Not much has changed between the two videos, but there is a sense that much has changed in Kayla.
Eighth Grade tracks these micro changes with a macro lens. Bolstered by Fisher’s remarkably selfless performance, Burnham’s camera zeroes in on the rhymes that accompany life’s pattern, blending the significant with the mundane and capturing something that is both familiar and strange. It’s a beautiful experience, even if it does take you back to so many of those moments you’d rather forget.
Eighth Grade is available to stream on Amazon Prime and Kanopy. Header photo courtesy A24.
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