Here's What Makes "Eighth Grade" So Good

Bo Burnham’s new movie made me want to die of embarrassment. But it also suggested something very few films do: that middle schoolers are actually worthy of attention, and love.

Every day of my eighth-grade existence orbited, emotionally, around a one-minute walk from the cafeteria to the classroom. I spent most of the day dreading this moment, then spent the rest of the day reflecting on my failure or success in it. Because during those 60 seconds, I was tasked with maneuvering myself into a situation where one of my grade’s three cool girls, or three secondarily cool girls, would link her arm through mine for the duration of the 200-foot walk.

That was my daily litmus test. Not whether I’d done well in a math competition, not whether I’d pleased a teacher or made my parents proud. My failure or success as a person living in the world hinged on someone else’s willingness to commit a small and ostensibly meaningless gesture. But that arm-linkage, like so many things in middle school, signified something far greater to me: that I belonged. The stakes felt so high because there was truly so little else in my life at stake: As a straight, white, nondisabled, upper-middle-class kid in Idaho, my daily life was devoid of anything even close to economic or physical precarity. And so the problem of belonging felt like the most pressing one in the world.

I didn’t belong — that was the actual problem. The vast majority of my deeply felt despair and nervousness as an eighth grader derived from that disconnect: between what I knew I needed to be in order to fit in (essentially, someone without personality) versus the parts of me, still forming but already undeniable, that would make me someone who could not fit in. I was terrified that I would spend the rest of my life in camouflage, simply to have someone to sit with at lunch.

Eighth Grade, the remarkable new film written and directed by Bo Burnham, is filled with moments of similar gravity. Kayla, played by actual middle schooler Elsie Fisher, spends her days in a nondescript, seemingly suburban town consumed with questions of coolness and acceptance. For me, in the mid-’90s, middle school life was all about who’d signed your binder, who wrote you a handwritten, elaborately folded note, who linked arms with you during that lunchtime walk. For Kayla, it’s about Instagram likes, DMs, and “follow backs,” and desperately trying to cultivate an audience for her personal YouTube channel, where she broadcasts videos on gaining confidence to an audience that consists of her dad, or, often, devastatingly, of no one at all.

Burnham was careful to consult with actual middle schoolers over the course of writing and filming, especially when it came to social media use — Fisher, for example, helped him swap out an outdated reference to teens communicating on Facebook to now using Instagram DM. (Facebook, if you didn’t know, is now uniquely the provenance of Olds.) But Eighth Grade isn’t about the unique obstacles of a social media–infused middle school. All the challenges and slights are immediately recognizable to anyone who was ever a teenager in school — they’re just often, but not always, digitally mediated now. I didn’t spend the movie curled into a small ball of acute agony because I, too, had done my hair and put on makeup solely to take “casual” pictures to post on Instagram Stories, but because I’d done so many similar, non–Instagram-related things in an attempt to achieve the same larger goal. The references and means of performing cool may change, but the mortification at the heart of it does not.

There are thousands of movies that attempt to trace the pivotal times in our lives: rom-coms rehearse falling in love; dramas act out reactions to personal tragedy; bro comedies glorify and then rectify the social problem of the undomesticated man. Coming-of-age movies generally show us that youth is weird but still magical, and that some event — even as seemingly inconsequential as a morning together in detention — functions as a hinge to adulthood, to maturity, to self-knowledge. All of these films reflect, in some way, their creators’ mythologization of these milestones. They teach us, again and again, what we’ve come to normalize as the rhythms and catharses of growing up.

There’s a reason, then, that so few movies focus on middle school: It’s incredibly difficult to mythologize, or at least to do so with any kind of light. It’s far too awkward and irredeemable a time — which is part of why one of the best (and only) middle school movies, Welcome to the Dollhouse, is so unceasingly bleak. When I asked a friend from middle school to try to remember the contours of eighth grade, he told me that part of what he remembers are his first encounters with dark thoughts — not shooting-up-a-classroom dark thoughts (this was the era before Columbine would change school forever), just beginning to see the unpleasant side of the world. Of course, many kids are exposed to and forced into that world far before middle school, but for many of us, middle school was the first time we saw or observed or acted with real cruelty. It was our first exposure to darkness.

We tested out vulgarity and its powers. We considered sex — and all the secret codes, like blow jobs and “bases,” associated with it — and were at once fascinated and repelled. Eighth grade was when people watched Faces of Death at sleepovers; it’s when I heard vague talk of a girl who’d done crank, which I somehow knew was bad, without actually knowing what it was. There’s a reason my eighth-grade pop culture diet was filled with The X-Files and Lois Duncan novels and Smashing Pumpkins: They were ways of “experiencing” darkness without personal risk.

It’s hard to sell a movie based on the premise of a tween girl mostly hanging out in her own thoughts, too temporarily paralyzed by the world to allow whatever nascent personality she’d eventually develop to emerge. Mainstream movies demand significant character development, vibrant turning points, narrative tension that goes beyond getting invited to the mall and looking in your closet and succumbing to existential despair at the lack of appropriate cool outfit options.

Yet Eighth Grade, like its cinematic big sister, Lady Bird, offers something quieter: Kayla doesn’t suddenly become accepted, or cool, or charismatic. Her “growth” is about what one would expect from an actual eighth grader, which is to say, she becomes mildly, mildly, more accepting of the person she is and will become. At the end of the film, the popular girls are still popular, the “cute” boy still lacks any discernible personality, and awkwardness doesn’t disappear so much as very, very gradually dissipate. Enduring eighth grade isn’t about becoming an adult; it’s about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel — and Eighth Grade is the first movie I’ve seen that effectively captures that fleeting yet essential piece of hope.

Like Kayla, I, too, was a blonde eighth grader with a round Scandinavian face besieged by acne; I, too, wore chokers and shortalls and flannels artfully tied around my waist — just 25 years earlier. Which is why watching Kayla felt like being in a purgatory where I was doomed to relive the quiet slights that wounded me most. In an episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast featuring Simmons’ own eighth-grade daughter, Burnham explains how he cast the role of Kayla: “We brought [Elsie Fisher] in to read, and every other kid that read for the part felt like a confident kid pretending to be shy,” he said. “She felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident, which is part of what [the part] is. To be a little in your head. What it means to be shy isn’t to not talk, it’s to actually want to talk every moment and not be able to.” When I heard that description, something like a sigh of relief mixed with a gasp of shock emitted from my body. It was as if a key had turned inside myself. I felt something similar while watching the end of Eighth Grade.

When I was years removed from middle school, working as a camp counselor during my college summers, I always loved the middle school girls the most. Other counselors would make fun of them or avoid them or claim they were the hardest to deal with, but I actively sought them out. At the time, I told people I liked the challenge. But I realize now that what I saw in them is the same thing the film sees in Kayla: that they too, despite the zits and the flailing tentacles of emotion, are lovable. To take care of and spend time with those eighth-grade girls was, in many ways, an act of self-love. I was making up for all the times I refused to see myself as worthy. And for all of the cringing moments of Eighth Grade, and despite how low its narrative stakes may be, that’s precisely what it does — for me and for so many who’ve seen it and will continue, through the years, to see it. Its accuracy is an incredible gift. I just wish I could have given it to my 13-year-old self. ●

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