Eighth Grade written and directed by Bo Burnham (IAC Films, A24, R, 93 min)
Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, and Emily Robinson.
Time to Worry
When I was younger, my mom would stay up until I returned home from whatever teenage exploits in which I had decided to engage. Early. Late. She’d be sitting on the couch reading, watching television, waiting patiently. Stubbornly, I often didn’t consider this sacrifice.
Instead, it always bothered me—that somehow I wasn’t to be trusted. But, she would always reinforce that this decision wasn’t really about me. She couldn’t sleep with me in absentia. She needed the peace of mind about my safety before she could retire.
Now, with kids of my own, I get it—the existential dread sitting beneath every waking moment surrounding my children’s well-being. I know—ten years from now—I’ll be the one sitting on that couch counting the hand of the ticking clock until my children return home from the teenage exploits of their choosing.
If anything, I’m more frightened. I spent my youth representing the last generation before smart phones and social media upended the coming-of-age script. So, my fears become magnified as I not only worry about my sons’ physical safety, but also their emotional safety.
The Frightening Milieu of Growing Up in this Moment
Perhaps better than any other coming-of-age film, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade captures the frightening milieu of physical, social, and emotional transformation that every kid experiences around middle school.
The film begins with Kayla (Elsie Fisher) giving a monologue to her laptop. Like many of her generation, the blog has moved to video and the source of social connection now via YouTube. She conveys a sense of confidence; her videos offer helpful tips around navigating the social structures of middle school.
But, when we follow Kayla to school, we see a different story. Painfully shy, Kayla is about to finish eighth grade and move up to high school. She sits in assembly as the year’s superlatives are announced, hoping against hope that she won’t get an embarrassing superlative.
On her way home, the mom of a popular girl invites her to a pool party and her every insecurity clashes against every hope to finally gain entry to the cool cliques.
Scene by scene, Kayla faces the anxieties of middle school, trying her best to wait out the clock before high school starts.
Life After this Transitional Phase
As a glimpse of hope, Kayla meets a fun, care-free high school student (Emily Robinson) during shadow day and realizes all the more that this transitional period won’t be the final chapter in her story.
But, it doesn’t make her current circumstances any less awkward. She disappears into her phone as her helpless father (Josh Hamilton) does whatever he can to forge connection. But the social media channels do nothing to make her feel any better, since the playground politics of school get magnified on the Internet.
While Eighth Grade is a fascinating film, it’s truthful storytelling about coming of age in this generation frightens me. I see my boys falling into the same traps in the years ahead and I’m helpless to stop it.
But, much like the argument Burnham offers in Eighth Grade, I cling to hope—that no matter the heartache of the transitional period, my boys will grow into who they are meant to be.