Hollywood has a long, storied history of lampooning teenagers. Showing the pains of growing up with stereotypes, instead of characters with that don’t fit a particular mold, has proven to be particularly lucrative. True, not everything is American Pie, but even the more respectable ones like The Breakfast Club rely on the tried and true stereotypical teenager archetypes. How else are we supposed to learn the lesson of inclusion unless the popular jock learns to accept the shy nerdy kid in front of all his friends? In a way, I can’t really blame them. How many people actually enjoyed their time as a teenager? It’s unbelievably awkward learning to navigate the world as you try to figure out who you are yourself. In short, it sucks, so give me the stereotypes as a way to sugarcoat the actual experience. Why would one want an accurate representation of those years on film? Enter Bo Burnham and Eighth Grade. It’s every uncomfortable moment you had growing up, presented in all it’s cringeworthy glory. It’s refreshingly real and it’s great.
Times may change but the experience of growing up does not. Kids today may have their faces planted in front of a screen, but the overall struggle still resonates as much to those of us a few decades out of middle school as it does to those still in the thick of it. I may have never had to go through an active shooter drill (yay, America!), but working up the courage to try and talk to someone at completely the wrong moment? Yup. The little moments that make up Kayla’s (Elsie Fisher) existence wouldn’t have as much impact if there wasn’t a great performance behind them. Fortunately for us, Fisher brings the perfect level of teenage awkwardness to the role as you become a part of her and her journey. All of the emotions of the volcano that is a teenager are on display here, and her performance along with Burnham’s script, capture this even better than recent critical darling Lady Bird.
It is very much worth bringing up the use of sound and music, as it plays a prominent role in the shaping of the world. It’s personal, in your face, and does a fantastic job of bringing you into Kayla’s world. This is not a soundtrack, it’s her life, an extension of her being. Kids spend a lot of time with headphones on, drowning out the rest of the world (hell, many adults too), so why not make that a central part of her characterization? Music is rarely used in film like this, but it makes so much sense once you hear it in action.
Eighth Grade is many things. Awkward. Funny. Charming. Heartbreaking. Hopeful. It’s an honest, realistic look at growing up, zits and all. The themes here defy any particular generation, and if you can’t find yourself sympathizing with Kayla, at least some of the time, then you just may have no soul. Or you grew up superficially, just had things handed to you, and can’t understand why she struggles so much. Six of one, eh?