The following is a review and retrospective of the A24 film Eighth Grade, out in theaters nationwide now!
When I think of myself during the eighth grade, I get a little sad. No, I did not have an excruciating history of bullying, abuse, or a catastrophic case of acne. But what bums me out is thinking how much more I would’ve enjoyed my teenage years if back then, I was the person I am today. My personality flourished closer to my twenties. My thoughts, ideas, character, and confidence developed way after high school. Eighth grade Juan was the definition of a wallflower. Just trying to get by, not get picked on, pass his classes, not cause any disruptions. I did not have many friends since my main focus was to avoid situations that will drown me in anxiety or panic. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was ever going to have the “typical American teen” experience. That experience that you saw in the movies of kids going to the mall, laughing on the phone, goofing off at the cafeteria. Because of its raw realism, watching the film Eighth Grade was a difficult and uncomfortable experience for me. But it was also a necessary one, in order for me to acknowledge my growth and appreciate my resilience.
Eighth Grade is a film about 13-year-old Kayla, as she navigates through the last couple of weeks of middle school. She is shy and awkward in her demeanor, but perhaps the most complex of her struggles is being overlooked. Winning “most silent” in the school’s yearbook is far from dream recognition to the average American teen. Kayla struggles in social situations but she finds solace in making lifestyle videos on YouTube. “Make sure to share this video and subscribe” she nervously commands her non-existent audience before awkwardly signing off with her signature “Gucci!” That last interaction on her videos is the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. The movie marvelously displays the disparity between Kayla’s social interactions (or lack thereof) and the confidently angsty persona that comes out to play with her well-intentioned father. In fact, the astounding difference between the girl yelling at her dad over dinner and the girl silently mouthing “good job” to a girl winning “best eyes” is a cringe-worthy character study of the everyday life of many. In my relatively young life, I’ve come to the conclusion that most people have two or more personalities. Whether said personalities are displayed unknowingly or as a defense mechanism, it is often difficult to allow everyone to see the real you. You are more likely to be yourself around your loved ones. There is a decreased amount of pressure that comes from failing, losing, erring, or being vulnerable in front of the people who know there is way more to you. Society often subjects you to a different kind of pressure. The outside doesn’t get to see that even at your lowest, your point of view is necessary. The pressure from the outside often teams up with your stress, anxiety, introvertism, or any other factors, and creates a persona that does not reflect your actual being and is often dismissed by others. The juxtaposition of the personalities often creates a complicated struggle of identity. That struggle is one of the most prevalent throughout the film.
Another important theme of the film is the relevant struggle of social media vs. social interaction. You don’t have to be thirteen years old to understand the concept. When I started this website, it was a way for me to express myself freely and allow my voice to be heard without the pressure of direct social interaction. There is a certain level of freedom and security that comes from self-expression behind a screen. It allows for more listening and less retort. When JuanderingAround started, I was very concerned with the amount of views and visitors. Like Kayla, I measured the worth of my efforts through the amount of likes and shares. It is very tricky living in a generation where social media plays such a big role. Watching the film made me realize that no matter how hard I had it during my youth, this generation has it harder. The pressure has increased, the world has turned crueler, innocence is lost sooner and sooner for most. Yikes, isn’t this a comedy, Juan?
Eighth Grade in essence is a comedy. It has plenty of funny moments and light fares to balance out the darkness. In fact, there’s plenty of elements we have seen before in coming-of-age comedies. Kayla develops a crush on bad boy Trevor. She unsuccessfully tries to interact with “cool girl” Kennedy. She makes a good friend, Olivia, on her high school visit. And in arguably the tensest scene of the film, she gets pressured by a boy to do things she’s not comfortable with. These elements have all been used before in story telling. The difference was how much the material resonated for me coming from such a fresh and authentic perspective.
The film was written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham. I was a little hesitant with the direction the film was going to take as he started his career making funny videos on the now defunct Vine. However, one can’t help but to attribute his successful take on contemporary adolescence to the fact that he himself is a part of the social media generation. His youth allowed him to create a deeper connection to the source material and I am honestly excited to see where his career is going to take him. Kayla is portrayed by Elsie Fisher. That is a name everyone should start memorizing. Her performance was nothing short of spectacular. I have heard a couple of opinions from friends who saw the film, and the reactions have been mixed. Many praised the film’s realism while others found it too uncomfortable or jarring. For me, the unsettling moments, the moments that made me cringe and want to cover my eyes, the moments that reminded me of my own experiences, those were the moments that made Eighth Grade one of the best films of the year.
To Eighth Grade Juan:
Hello! How’s it going? Well, I know how it’s going, but it is just an expression to use in letter form. I know this year, the past year, and even the next few years are not going that great. I know you don’t have many friends and your innocence and immaturity do not allow you to find much in common with your peers. Your room is fully decorated with Spongebob memorabilia when all your classmates are talking about sex. I know that everytime you have to talk in class, your voice is shaky, quiet, there are knots in your throat. Your body makes you insecure. Your clothes make you insecure. Your crooked smile makes you insecure. I know you crave being able to hold a conversation, to make people laugh the way you make your cousin and your sister laugh. How can you show that side of you to everyone else? Your grades are good, you are very smart, yet somehow you wish you could trade your smarts for popularity and less anxiety. You ask yourself many questions: “I’m I ever going to stop feeling so lonely? Is it ever going to get better? Do my parents wish I was different?” Today I’m here to tell you that it’s not gonna get better in the next few years. You are going to go through depression, mental health issues, self-loathing, your grades are gonna go down, you are not gonna make many friends in high school, you’re gonna struggle with your sexuality, you are going to be lost, without direction, without purpose. And that’s life. You’ll continue to try because you’re alive, you are blessed to have health and a family that loves you. You are blessed with a mind that might be frustrating at times, but is going to be your refuge in many others. I am here to tell you that the struggle is real, but once you discover who you are, that struggle is gonna diminish year after year. I’m happy to report that you will meet some amazing people in your twenties. People who are gonna be there for you, people who appreciate you, people who want to be in your life. You are gonna make many people laugh! You are gonna switch careers until you find something that makes you excited. You are gonna get over your insecurities. You are gonna learn to love your body, the glow up is gonna be real! I can’t wait for you to see it. In the meantime, be strong, be resilient, allow yourself to cry, but don’t ever give up. I love you.
Many people love you. See you in a few years.