Friday, February 8, 2019
Catching-Up Watch: Eighth Grade (2018)
Format: Amazon Streaming (Prime)
A lot of ink got spilled and a lot of gushing occurred when Eighth Grade (2018) hit cinemas last year. And, of course, you'll note the trend that this kneecaps movies for me when I do get around to seeing them, so I won't linger on that too much, but all of the praise certainly colored how I went into the film (cheerfully, willingly, curiously!), and my reaction by the film's conclusion.
With no children of my own, I have a sense of, but no direct evidence of, how life is different for today's kids than how it was when we were the same age (I'm near 44). I can't imagine my middle school life had I had access to the internet, to phones, to instant communication, to the notion of YouTube stardom (that's the one that scares me the most). Eighth Grade isn't about the internet and kids that age, but it's such a massive part of their lives now, not including the force that is social media, texting, etc... would be a lie, would make this a Disney Channel movie where everyone hits their marks and pays attention and phones only appear as plotpoints.
The movie uses Kayla Day's vlogging/ inspirational videos posted to YouTube as a sort of framing device, ironic narrative tool and near Greek Chorus. It's Kayla's last week of the Eighth grade and she's finishing middle school unhappy, seemingly friendless, and voted "Most Quiet" in her class (school admins, NO!). She spends countless hours online watching clips of her classmates, filtered videos, looking at their social media - but, pointedly, there's no one actually around that she speaks to.
The narrative has a drifting, ambling quality. The "beat the clock" of the story is that middle school is ending, but Kayla has no goal to achieve, which sounds about right for a lot of kids that age. She'd like to be popular, make friends (with the popular kids), etc... but she's awkward, shy, and when she does get fired up to talk to anyone, it feels like a disaster. Social anxiety is real, people.
While the movie has a certain universality to it (who didn't feel a bit awkward, unpopular or adrift in those years?), the sheer isolation of Kayla's existence is exceptional and all the more painful to watch. There's no girlfriend with whom she can be catty and share secrets and complain to or gossip with or even just... talk. And all the more heartbreaking is the girl who wants things to be okay that's inside her, at odds with how she's feeling.
I don't think these kids didn't or don't exist, sort of shadows on the edge of the herd, who somehow got the mark on them, and after some time, no one notices anymore (and no one wants to get too near lest some of that mark rub off on them).
At home, Kayla has the love and attention of her single-dad dad - who is played pretty terrifically by Josh Hamilton - who knows he's out of his depth, and trying to give a 13-14 year old the space she needs as best he can.
One of the great joys of the film, to me, is that the brutal awfulness of kids this age (that anyone takes a job as a middle school teacher for less than $300K per year is insane) is on full display in ways big and small, and the absolute absurdity within which their lives are managed - from active shooter drills and demos to keeping in line on a field trip - is tragicomedy at its best. And, of course, Kayla's classmates - kids who have no idea how anything works navigating a world that's not yet high school and far from the monkeybars at recess... and, of course, the operatic swooning as the first crushes kick in.
All this said - the movie is simply predictable. There's a lot of stuff that feels like you've seen it before or the scene maps itself out for anyone who ever was 13, playing it's hand early with almost every new beat. Paired with the unnecessarily long take, it can play on our masochism for awkwardness, maybe mistaking anxious laughs for real ones.
If there's anything particularly exceptional about the movie's character, it's that she is so ordinary, maybe even mundane, but you do build an affection for her - the awkwardness never feels quite *annoying* or cloying. What Kayla's father sees, the audience can see, too.
And, of course, there's the bit where we also broach the subject of how @#$%ing miserable it can be for girls crossing into the lines of becoming young women when they're surrounded by high school boys (who are, I can report as one myself at one point, the absolute @#$%ing worst).
It's a curious time for media that's being blunt about middle school. Big Mouth on Netflix is actually something I'd happily hand to a kid in 6th or 7th grade as it covers all the stuff no one ever told me, in language I was using at the time (it is filthy. Just an absolute horror show that is also 100% accurate.). And I guess PEN15 is the next one coming down the pike that actually has some similar bits to it as this movie.*
The familiarity and semi-universality of the middle school experience can make the film more mundane than I expected, but it's still worth a spin. And for those of you heading into this territory with your own kids... highly recommended. As good as the performances (and they are all good), and as well drawn as the characters are (and they're utterly believable), I don't know how *new* this feels beyond a very refreshing honesty regarding computers and the internet in kids' lives. "Awkward teen tries to fit in and is sad about it" isn't necessarily revelatory, but if you're going to play a tune people know, at least play it with your own voice and make it your own - and this movie does.
*One bit of societal side-eyeing I'll do is that some movies trying to be honest about high school boys, like Superbad, took a lot of heat about how awful they were, which I thought was really odd at the time (I'd have to rewatch the movie, which I've never done), because the jokes mostly landed on the side of "it's funny because it's true" shit about high school boys (who are mostly awful). So I guess it's okay if its animated or looks like a cheap indie movie or something. Or we move the action to Middle School.