What an inspired film morsel on parenting and navigating the teen years! Our starting point in “Eighth Grade” is the last days of junior high, though there is a flashback sequence to six grade via a shoebox time capsule, a clever and evocative device used twice.
Director\Writer Bo Burnham knows how to freshen up all the hallmarks of teendom: attitude, angst, mortified looks, and privacy issues. He uses all the core gateways of social media addiction, selfies, mall food courts, crushes, and “ Our Changing Bodies” health class video.
Even at seventy, one winces at “hair down there” and teachers who attempt to use teen slang to be one of the gang. “It is going to be ‘lit’! ” , the puberty instructor shrieks.
Any speech or English teacher can attest to the fact that Burnham has teen verbiage down: “you know like”, “but like if”, and “and, and, em”, and “ it sucks” and “anyways” . “Boring” and “amazing” are the primary vocabulary descriptors of eighth graders.
Our protagonist, Kayla, is played memorably by Elsie Fisher. As a thirteen-year-old suburbanite, her tutorials posted on-line mirror her concerns and interests: “Being Yourself”, “Everyday Make-up”, “Going Out Look”,” Put Yourself Out There” and “How To Be Confident”. She is both silly and insightful. Her twinkling “Gucci” with the thumb circle hand sign ends every life tip pod cast. Her “to do list” reads “get more friends”.
Friends and their importance may be the missing formative piece in the film. The only semblance of real friend support comes from a mentoring high school girl and a geeky boy, Gab. Both seem to have self-motives for befriending Kayla.
The competitive boy flaunting his primacy with “breath holding” contests and “ archery bullseye” certificates. As he serves up chicken nuggets with eight plastic containers of individual sauces, he does engage her thoughts with questions like , “Do you believe in God?” and “ Do you like the silverware?” in the same breath.
Gab does posit that he has watched all Kayla’s videos, and that he thinks her own talk show is a possibility. The encouraging senior , Olivia, enjoys cheering the younger generation on. One of my favorite scenes has an upper classmen astonished that Kayla has been on “Snapshot” since fifth grade. He confidently states that she is “wired differently”.
Stages of heart-throbs, crushes, and sexual try-outs are covered. Dreams, trinkets and exploits surveyed. The fact that many of the eighth grade boys are still turning their eyelids inside out and squirting pool water between their front teeth, and stretching bubble gum from their mouths is not missed.
Josh Hamilton is Kayla’s “oh, so patient” father, Mark. He tries so hard to engage Kayla, but resorts to spying on her at the mall. Humor and tenderness play out. One of the funniest lines comes with Kayla’s request, “ Will you help me bury something in the backyard ?”
When Kayla asks her dad if she makes him sad, a sweet homage ensues: “I am so unbelievably happy that I get to be your Dad”. We recognize how much teens need statements like this. He is persistent; he doesn’t give up. He stays with her.
As Kayla clashes cymbals in the school band, we understand that she will not always earn the “superlative” ~Most Quiet”. She will be able to say when she feels uncomfortable. She will be able to discern when someone tries to emotionally manipulate her for their own ends.
The twenty-seven-year-old Burnham has done a service for parents that think they can protect teens by sheltering them. Best to use this film to teach about the real dangers of predators, the ones who use your needs to get theirs met. Stranger danger and candy man stories need to be upgraded for pubescent teens . An upbeat film that deals with a selfish world, “Eighth Grade” has hit its mark.