Eighth Grade is a subtle giant
Indie comedy is full of hard truths
If there was ever an authority on the coming-of-age film, Molly Ringwald would certainly be it. So, it would almost be neglectful to not state that Ringwald tweeted that Eighth Grade “is the best movie about adolescence I’ve seen in a long time. Maybe ever.” The queen of the 80s never lies. Eighth Grade is painfully relatable yet delightfully poignant from start to finish.
The film opens with the protagonist, Kayla (perfectly imperfectly acted by Elsie Fisher), delivering a monologue to her laptop’s webcam about “being yourself.” She stumbles while attempting to articulate the concept stating, “Being yourself is like—not changing yourself to impress someone else.” She then follows a YouTube makeup tutorial and gets back into bed to post a selfie captioned “woke up like this.”
It’s a performative act that occurs in nearly everyone’s daily life—even if we don’t want to admit it. This is especially apparent in the audience’s reaction to Kayla’s missteps. Viewers are never laughing at the misguided middle schooler; they’re always laughing with her.
Though the anxiety to perform and be someone you’re not for the approval of others might seem only prevalent in adolescence, the feeling extends much further than eighth grade. It would be easy to blame social media for it, and though it may be a culprit for the current frequency and prevalence of these moments, the anxiety we feel when “we put ourselves out there”—as Kayla calls it during one of her videos—occurs over the course of our entire lives.
The drama in most of our lives does not look like James Cameron’s Titanic, but it sure as hell feels like it. As Kayla enters the pool party or sings karaoke in front of her peers, an outside perspective would view it as mundane. Kayla, however, feels so intensely that her world is coming to an end because she’s about to hit the freaking iceberg.
Via beautifully directed closeups, zooms and pans throughout Kayla’s environment and an ironically dramatic musical score, Burnham and the film’s composer, Anna Meredith, portray these moments to viewers not as what they objectively are but as what they feel like to Kayla. They are delivered as subtle giants. Standing up for yourself, becoming friends with someone new, or speaking your vulnerable truth can feel exhilarating and frightening no matter what your age may be. The feeling of slaying the giant never goes away. How wonderfully unifying is it to admit that at the end of the day everyone can feel exactly like an eighth-grade girl?
It is in this way that the film exudes empathy in settings (the internet and middle school) that nearly lack it entirely. The film is about forgiving yourself for those awkward moments and remembering that everyone else had—and probably continues to have—them too.
Bo Burnham has stated that, in a way, the film is him trying to forgive himself for the content of those viral YouTube videos that originally shot him to internet fame while simultaneously soothing his own current anxiety.
Eighth Grade reminds us, especially in this internet age, that everyone is just as confused and bewildered as the next person. So maybe we should all just move forward like Kayla and be “gucci” with others and ourselves.