A24 Films have done it again, first horrifying us by exposing our high school hearts @ladybird and now a disturbingly honest portrayal of @eighth grade. Spend your therapy money on seeing this film twice.
That is, if you’re ready to revisit 8th grade. I mean, it was uncomfortable at points, me squeezing my bride’s arm to remind me they were all actors and it wasn’t actually happening to me. (How to know if you’re an empath). Watching an awkward 14 year-old walk up to front door of a popular girl (who invited her under parental duress), our breath quickens with hers, until finally (finally!) she reaches the hallway bathroom, slams the door shut, and nearly vomits with anxiety. She’s brave but anxious – and how the filmmaker captures both at once is beyond me.
But Bo Burnham does – somehow this 28-year-old man in New York inhabits the nerves of a junior high girl and glues them onto a strip of film, casts them onto the walls of a movie theater in California and sends me back to my 8th grade year in Portland, Oregon. A year when I was transplanted from my Florida roots and dropped into a first day of school where I was guaranteed to know no one.¹ Little did I know when I wrote my sixth grade paper about the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens that within two years I would move 3000 miles to live within view of her crater – or that my parachute pants and Breakin’ 2 Electric Boogaloo sleeveless shirt would be as foreign to Oregonians as a Miami rapper.
And it doesn’t hurt that music tells the story. We see Kayla – the main character handled masterfully by Elsie Fisher – and we read her every emotion via the harshly synthed soundtrack. When her boy-crush Aidan walks into the room, the music abruptly cuts to a thumping rave. When she dares herself to approach her social superior for a conversation in the school hallway, the bass becomes a heartbeat. When she tunes out her dad at dinner time, the audio masterfully follows her earbuds in and out – we barely hear the dad talking to her, then he’s there again, interrupting her dinner plate Instagram scroll.
Her dad is earnest, fun, patient, cool – everything I imagine myself to be with my teenager but we see here how little it matters. Nothing he says is right and no time is right to say it. Why do I stew over the exact words to say when none will ever be heard? Until he finally gets the futility, when driving her to the mall for her first chance at real teenage friends, she berates him for not talking – “Stop being so weird and quiet,” she says, “You’re making me nervous and I can’t text my friends when you’re like this.”
The entire movie is like that – completely from her point of view – which in its myopia mirrors the adolescent mind. We feel her dares and her failures, and through the brilliant device of her self-help youtube videos, we watch her prescribe and then take advice on “being confident” and “putting yourself out there.” (“But where is there,” she wonders, and “why would I want to go there”?)
Much will be made of the role social media plays in this film. In one scene she yells at her dad, “What will make me happy is if you just let me look at my phone!” Which he does, and she does – and still happiness eludes her. We see the point, but others will cover this topic so I will simply point out that this obsession hurts her but also provides her singular creative outlet and later connects her to the few healthy relationships she needs.
Internet or no, what is clear is the timeless frailty of adolescence and the hope on all sides to just “make it through.” Leaving the theater I simply wanted to hug every 8th grader I saw walking around that mall and assure them they will be alright. And that includes my own junior high self – even in those parachute pants – who made it to this day just in time to worry about his own teenager.
And then to see that he too, would be ok.
♦ weekendswell ♦
To read about more awkward years, see my review of Lady Bird
¹As if those years weren’t awkward enough, my school was named Parkrose Middle School, or, as the 1000-point font initials at the school’s entrance boasted, “PMS”.