I grew up in the era of coming-of-age films. My childhood was filled with John Hughes iconic teen dramedies: The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Somewhere in between all the Hughes’ movies, I grew up and now have children of my own.
Children who have watched these movies from my childhood and introduced me to their generation’s coming-of-age films. When MacKenzie announced we needed to watch Eighth Grade, I was on board. When I saw Molly Ringwald’s tweet about Eighth Grade, proclaiming it to be “the best movie about adolescence I’ve seen in a long time. Maybe ever” it became a must-see. After all, Ringwald knows a thing or two about coming-of-age films.
MacKenzie is quick to remind me I “have no idea what it is like to be a teenager in 2018“. This may be true, but I do understand that every single interaction feels like gut-wrenching, teeth-gnashing drama that will be recounted well into the adult years.
I remember being young and wanting a little girl of my own. As the mother of three boys and three girls, I can tell you that there is not a more exasperating and terrifying creature than a teenage girl. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience.
Watching Eighth Grade was some of the best moments I’ve shared with MacKenzie. The movie opens with the main character, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) heading off to class with her head bowed and her shoulders hunched. She seems to be swimming against the current of the loud student tide hallway. It’s the last week of eighth grade, and my heart opened wide for this character immediately. She’s a teenager looking for a place to fit in with others.
Kayla is gawky. She is imperfect. She is a version of all of us in one facility or another. She doodles at lunch, alone. She is voted “Most Quiet” by her classmates. She spends the majority of her time tethered to a cell phone. The cell phone connects her to celebrities, cartoons, stranger selfies, hashtag after hashtag, emojis, avatars and more.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Kayla sees through this cell phone, something we all understand, people, unlike us, living their best lives, having awesome moment after an awesome moment.
Social Media. It’s the division between my daughter’s fourteen and the fourteen of my youth. My fourteen was writing in diaries, dotting the letter i with hearts and flowers. My daughters fourteen is YouTube, Instagram and comparing herself to strangers.
Like Kayla, MacKenzie just went through the struggle of navigating between middle school and high school. My daughter just started at a new school where she knew a handful of people. Those first few days were a complicated kind of suffering.
Kayla is quiet. She has a core that centers on the importance of doing a “good job.” She believes in good intentions, sincere effort, and positive thinking. Perhaps she read her parent’s copy of The Secret–I’m guessing here, but the attitude is the same if you want something to happen you can will it to happen.
This core is the focus of Kayla’s YouTube vlog. Her demographic is teen advice-seekers. In reality, no one is watching, so it serves for as a reminder for Kayla.
“Being yourself is really hard, and the hard part about being yourself is that it’s not always easy.” It’s all wrapped up with “Basically, you know, like, be yourself, and don’t care about what other people think about you…and everything will work out if you’re just yourself.”
For me, Eighth Grade hits it out of the ballpark. It features middle school. It is a scene I see every day when I pick up William. His too-large backpack is seemingly defying gravity from pulling his stick-like body to the ground. Unpracticed hygiene. Self-Doubt. It’s all here.
It also reminds me that whether we are fourteen or forty-nine, there is still a contradiction in our self-affirmation. We strive to be authentic, but also to be our BEST.
Kayla portrays this through the sticky notes around her mirror, each with a message of empowerment, positivity, self-help and even messages that bring a smile to my face such as, “Get new green shades of eyeliner” and “Put a little lip gloss on the cheeks for shine.”
We witness the struggle as Kayla follows along step-by-step on a YouTube “everyday makeup tutorial.” She adds concealer, eyeliner, blows her hair dry and then gets on the bed for a morning Snapchat selfie with the caption, “Just woke up like this…Ugh.”
Director Bo Burnham, a stand-up comic who started out posting videos of himself on YouTube, fine tunes the coming-of-age. Hughes allowed us to observe this era in a day-long detention at the school library; Burnham takes five days on Social Media.
Social Media becomes its own character in Eighth Grade. It’s obvious with the scrolling and scrolling, the late nights in her dark bedroom and the glow of her phone as she scrolls through the social media fees observing the perfection of her classmates.
Kayla is ordinary. She is blank. This is the point of Eighth Grade. Her simplicity makes her authentic. She isn’t the star of the Volleyball team. She isn’t a popular kid. She is not rich. Her life is mundane and at the same time thrilling because it is hers.
Being a teenager is challenging, add the pressure of social media and it becomes vulnerable to the ongoing loop of lonliness and loneliness on we all experience in the face-to-face life.
At the end of the movie, Kayla records a vlog that she plans to place in a time capsule, to be opened at the end of senior year.
“Congrats on finishing high school. I’m so proud of you,” she says. “If high school sucked for you, I’m really sorry about that, and that sucks. But it’s, like, whatever: middle school wasn’t so great for me, but I’m past it now, and I’m moving forward. Just because things are happening to you right now doesn’t mean that they’re always gonna happen to you. And things will change. And you never know what’s gonna, like, happen next, and that’s what makes things exciting, and scary. And fun.”
I suggested to MacKenzie she make a time capsule to open at the end of her senior year. It’s when I realized the impact of Eighth Grade. I thought we’d have it done, but it’s been a week, and she’s still putting it together. Choosing her pieces with care; things that matter, that are making a difference. I’m not rushing her. It’s her time capsule, and when she opens it years from now, she’ll realize how worth the struggle this all way. She’ll appreciate what she has now. Looking back she’ll know she is going to be okay.
Watch Eighth Grade. Celebrate the small tragedies and the more minor triumphs. It gave me hope. It allowed MacKenzie to recognize the dynamics of being a teenager. We looked at each other, knowing that it’s possible to live through this and emerge okay.
Eighth Grade has a 99% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.