I spend a lot of my time working with teenagers – and a hefty majority of that time with my Pathfinder unit, a group of 30 girls in grade seven, eight and nine.
The kids I work with who are in 8th grade are some of the most interesting people I know. They are smart, thoughtful and full of dreams for the future. Most of my meaningful kid conversations come from grade 8s.
So when Eighth Grade started making waves I was thrilled. This is a group that often gets ignored. We make a lot of movies about high school girls – teenagers around 16/17. We create a lot of content for kids. Middle school kids, the awkward ones – are ignored.
On Tuesday, my friend Alex and I went to see Eighth Grade. It was amazing.
We laughed, we cried, we cringed. I left thinking “I’m so glad I’m not in Eight Grade” – and I’m so glad Eighth Grade nailed it.
The casting was incredible – Elsie Fisher is amazing as Kayla (maybe even Oscar amazing). Josh Hamilton is the perfect awkward dad as Mark. Kayla’s 8th grade classmates feel like are all in 8th grade – because the actors are all actually 14-15. Luke Prael as Aiden is the perfect cast in the role of ‘awful but still so hot’ in the most ultimate 8th grade way. Nora Mullins as Steph and Catherine Oliviere as Kennedy are the perfect middle school plastics. Then Jake Ryan as Gabe made my heart sing. Kudos to the casting team.
The music was killer. The cinematography was stunning. The costumes were wonderful. Everything you would want in a movie was here.
But what made this movie so special is how Bo Burnham perfectly captured the 8th-grade girl experience.
Kayla, the protagonist in Eighth Grade, is a perfect representation of girls at this age. She’s in this weird semi-confidant stage – she knows who she is and who she wants to be, but now she has to figure out how to be that person in public.
It explores so many crucial themes. Throughout the movie, Kayal records videos for her youtube channel where she talks about things like self-confidence, stepping outside your comfort zone and how to disregard other people’s negative perspectives of you. I want to show her videos to all the 8th graders in my life.
Kayla, like many young people, is addicted to social media. 95% of the time I spend with kids – we don’t let them have phones. They know this, but I’ve had kids get visibility agitated and aggressive when they have to hand over their phones. The era of Snapchat streaks had kids handing in fake phones to deke us out. But it’s so important to get them to step out of the online world – even for just a few hours.
Watching Kayla fall deeper into the ‘phone’ + ‘social media’ addiction was heartbreaking. You can tell that she so desperately wants the life that others are portraying. They way she scans and likes endless content feels so authentic – and the way Eighth Grade captures this moment is ingenious.
Ingenious is a word I would use to describe this whole movie. It’s just so spot-on.
We get to see her relationship with boys develop – she has a crush on the ‘cute’ boy in class (who is so painfully an 8th-grade boy), she meets a really nice, but really weird boy, and she has a scary run-in with a guy in high school. Each of these characters show a nuanced portrait of the different kind of guys you meet at this age.
As we watched, women in our theatre literally yelled and groaned at the screen – trying to tell Kayla to watch her back with these boys. I felt like some of the ‘lines’ these boys used were lines I heard back in middle school. It was so genuine and transcendent, proving that middle school is always the worst.
Her relationship with her dad also changed throughout the film. Kayla is trying so hard to gain independence and be her own person, but she doesn’t have the ability to fully do this yet. So she’s trying to push her dad away, but she so clearly still needs him – she’s trapped. There’s this great scene where Kayla tells her dad to stop being ‘like that’ – unable to fully articulate what exactly he is doing that is so annoying to her. You can tell that he loves her so much, but has no clue what is going on with her. Well, dad’s everywhere – I’ve got a book for you.
Read Untangled by Lisa Damour. She talks about the seven stages girl’s go through in their teens to transition into adulthood. It is one of the best books I’ve read about how to deal with teenagers and I’m recommending it to every parent/educator I know.
Kayla is just trying to ‘reject childhood’ and ‘find her tribe’. She’s really trying to ‘harness her emotions’ but doesn’t have the language yet to articulate her needs. She’s ‘entering the romantic world.’ She’s trying to figure out high school and ‘plan for the future’. She’s also coming to the realization that adults do not know everything – and ‘is contending with adult authority’. There’s a lot going on and it’s overwhelming.
“A lot of people call me quiet or shy or whatever… but I’m not,” Kayla states at the beginning of the film. I can think of at least a dozen girls who fit this description. She knows she’s “funny and cool and talkative.” As a society, we don’t actually stop and talk to kids at this age – or more importantly, stop and listen to them – to find out that they are funny and cool and give them the space to be talkative.
I’m so glad Bo Burnham created a space to truly see 8th graders for the fascinating people that they are.
Eighth Grade is currently playing in Toronto at Scotiabank and Varsity.
p.s. Don’t know who Bo Burnham is? He was one of the Orginal YouTube Stars. He was smart, funny and had the raw talent that made him go viral in a time when being a Youtuber wasn’t a ‘thing’ yet. Look him up – it’s worth it.