EIGHTH GRADE is a beautifully true high definition close-up on the most awkward of ages. You don’t feel like a kid anymore, but the high schoolers you’re about to be tossed in with seem like adults, and you haven’t even caught up with the kids your own age. If you’re Kayla (Elsie Fisher, a voice in the DESPICABLE ME film saga) you pride yourself on knowing how to conquer life – in fact your hobby is creating Youtube videos giving friendly, positive advice – but really you feel like every single other person knows what they’re doing and you don’t.
The movie isn’t in first person, like I’m describing it here, but it’s almost that intimate. So much of it stays close on her face, the kids around her a little out of focus. From her terrified expressions you can feel her chest about to implode with tension, but you can also tell that nobody notices. They’re off in their own world. They don’t even look at her.
For my money this is an improved grade of WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE. It captures the nightmare of social awkwardness without having to exaggerate the ugliness of the world. It’s not mean. It’s real. Sure, there’s cringing, but it’s organic cringing, not pushed-to-the-limit cringing like we enjoy in Curb Your Enthusiasm and stuff. The events are mostly mundane – a birthday party where she doesn’t fit in, a trip to the mall with older kids – but they feel as heavy and monumental as they would at that age.
It’s very observant about odd growing up things like not wanting to be called “quiet.” Kayla is not really a nerd per se, she just hasn’t mastered acting cool or making friends. She’s at a little bit younger, more innocent stage than most of the other kids. She has a round face and big eyes like a cartoon avatar on one of the apps she stares and swipes at literally most of the day. She always has a little acne. She’s the only one at the pool party with a one piece swimming suit. She’s developed neither the interest in sex that the boys have nor the skills to reject them. The one time a peer gives her good advice (that boy you think is cute, he’s a dick, he dumped a girl for not giving him nude photos) she uses it as intel on how to get his attention.
Aiden (Luke Prael, BOARDING SCHOOL) is a great example of how the movie can give us both a subjective Kayla and more objective grown up perspective. We see him in dub-step-accompanied slow motion as she admires his award-winning eyes squinting out from beneath his bangs. He has a Thrasher Magazine t-shirt and some kind of James Dean rebel vibe. But also he’s just some skinny little dipshit. We watch him playing video games and not picking up on Kayla’s rehearsed attempt to hit on him until she says the phrase “dirty photos” and he perks up like that dog that says “SQUIRREL!” And then when class starts up again it’s like the spell of his boner is broken and he goes right back to puffing his cheeks out and making fart noises. We can see that this kid and the girls Kayla wants to be friends with are dumb little assholes that she shouldn’t care about, and also we can see why she does.
Kayla lives alone with her dad (Josh Hamilton, J. EDGAR), who always seems flustered about how to be a good dad, but also seems like a very good dad. He never even gets that scene where he gets fed up and turns strict. He’s just a nice guy who thinks his daughter is wonderful and wants her to see it too. Because this is eighth grade, though, Kayla acts like he’s the worst dude ever. She blocks him out at the dinner table with headphones and her phone screen, treats every bit of conversation like an interrogation, gets made at him for saying things or not saying anything or having a look on his face. But it’s still a sweet relationship. He’s a little taken aback, but he gets it. He’s hurt, but amused.
To me the most harrowing scene is the pool party. The perfectly named popular girl Kennedy Graves (Catherine Oliviere, THE WEAVER OF RAVELOE) has a million beautiful friends and transparently hates Kayla, who was invited to the party by Kennedy’s mom (Missy Yager, HAPPY DEATH DAY), due either to cluelessnness about the evolution of her daughter’s social life, or a crush on Kayla’s dad, or maybe a genuine attempt to get her daughter to be nice to people. Kayla knows the score and at first tries to get out of it, but then bites the bullet when she hears Aiden will be there. The girl’s got balls.
Coming through the sliding door, down the wooden stairs and into the gaggle of skinny 13 year olds in bikinis laughing and splashing and seemingly comfortable with themselves and each other feels as daring as wearing a wire or going on live TV or jumping off of a speeding vehicle. It’s clear that none of them are friends with her, they won’t understand why she’s there, and they aren’t the type to try to make her feel welcome. But she gets into the pool and tries to act like she belongs and can only talk to Kennedy’s Eddie Deezen-esque cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan, MOONRISE KINGDOM, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, ISLE OF DOGS – jesus, the filmography on this kid already), the other partygoer who got in on a technicality.
Eighth grade is about to end. Of course high school could be worse, but it could be a good chance for a reset. It’s such a relief when Kayla goes to an orientation thing and the high school student she’s assigned to shadow, Olivia (Emily Robinson, ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE) turns out to be a total sweetheart who immediately hugs her. Of course you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I think Olivia represents an optimistic, It Gets Better kind of view of growing up. There will be new challenges, but also new and better people to meet.
The whole movie feels very authentic, and I’ve heard from experts (women) that male comedian turned director Bo Burnham has accurately portrayed a female experience. I wondered how he could not only seem to get into the mind of a young girl, but a modern one whose life exists mostly on Instagram and Youtube and shit. Then I found out he’s only 27, and broke into comedy with viral Youtube videos when he was 16, so he’s not as removed from that life as I assumed.
(I have a rule about younger people. If they were at least born before Tim Burton’s BATMAN then I should be able to talk to them like a peer. Burnham was born two months after DICK TRACY.)
It’s kind of cool that the story of Kayla can feel so universally human and yet so different from my childhood. I sometimes feel grateful that Youtube didn’t exist when I was a kid, imagining what kind of humiliating ways I would’ve attempted to express myself. But then I look at Kayla making her videos that are probly not being watched by more than a few people, that attempt to impart empowering messages that she’s heard somewhere and clearly doesn’t know from experience, and I realize how much I like her anyway. I’ve seen Youtube comments before so I’m sure they would say some mean shit about her, but she seems very sincere about wanting to help people, wanting to be the cool friend to someone that she wishes someone was to her. Even if she’s a phony.
In some sense the videos are really about teaching herself. When she encourages people to be brave she’s the one who ends up doing it. During the party, before she goes off and hides in an empty room, she takes the mic to do karaoke. We don’t get to hear how she does or see how badly anyone reacts, only to celebrate the victory of her just saying “fuck it” and being vulnerable in front of these dicks. And I think (SPOILER?) the lesson she learns at the end of the movie is really the subject of her video that opened the film.
It’s weird, I can’t really think of another movie specifically about middle school. There are so many teen movies where they can get away with having actors in their twenties. With this one they could never do that, they’d be better off trying mo-cap, because they all have to look like kids who don’t realize they’re kids.
When I think about it this grade was pretty pivotal in growing up for me. (VERN AGE SPOILERS COMING UP.) I thought Dead Kennedys were the greatest, tried to bleach my hair, made up a punk name, got sent to the counselor for the drawings on my science book, knew other kids were doing drugs, heard who was supposedly having sex, saw part of THE EVIL DEAD and ACTION JACKSON at some girl’s birthday party in her apartment building’s cabana room but only appreciated the latter, was told by the wrestling coach that he was worried I had quit the team to hang around a bad crowd, got called “fag” alot, got the cops called on me because a lady thought I threw a rock at her car, thought I was some kind of misunderstood outcast even though I had good friends and family, became obsessed with Public Enemy, knew a kid from school who slipped into Snoqualmie Falls and died – at least, I had talked to him once, about Public Enemy. And I can kind of remember what it felt like to be so full of energy and raw emotion and how completely clueless I was about all of it, but I know that little sparks of those things helped grow me into the person I am today. And of course I still listen to It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back regularly, and Dead Kennedys once in a blue moon, and sometimes I remember that I’m way older than the people when they made those albums, but instinctively take the music as wisdom from the elders.
If Kayla’s high school experience is like mine she’ll spend a year trying to figure out how to be a normal kid, then decide to go in the opposite direction, and find herself somewhere out there. Good luck, fictional girl, you’ll be okay.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.