What a great movie to start a conversation with your own 13 year old! All the feels--from social media angst to timeless "am I normal?" puberty concerns.
Eighth Grade (2018), written and directed by Bo Burnham expertly tackles the concept of the hyperconnected, social media obsessed adolescent by exposing the nuance and texture of the lives of young people and the sometimes-baffled caregivers that accompany them. Transpiring over the last week of middle school for 13-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), the film utilizes a tension between the protagonist’s unfulfilled hopes and dreams of early adolescence and the imagined possibilities awaiting her in high school to keep the viewer grounded in a feeling of expectant frustration. The film also successfully addresses how thoroughly social media platforms and the use of smartphones and other internet-enabled devices at increasingly younger ages are impacting the lives of young people in new and familiar ways.
Centrally, Eighth Grade explores how social media filters, carefully curated feeds, the need to be shared, liked and subscribed to, as well as good old fashioned gossip shape self-esteem as well as the sexual values and mores of teens. Roles familiar in any teen dramedy of the last three decades from jock to social outcast to clueless and somewhat absentee parent take on new significance primarily because the characters are so much younger but remain recognizable. Clear editing decisions demonstrate that we are to understand sexual attractiveness and desire only from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl; and yet, we are left wondering from the feeds of peers pushing their own understandings of attractiveness that Kayla views how these messages take root so quickly in young teens.
A marked departure from a typical teen flick is how Eighth Grade handles sexual coercion and slut-shaming. In a series of scenes where the usual outcome of sexual assault or rape is telegraphed so far in advance as to make even the lead-up cringeworthy, Burnham chooses to depict assertive communication by the survivor that effectively shuts down the physical behavior. Although a vitriol-laden spew of toxic masculinity immediately follows, it is refreshing to witness a popular film send the message that young people can set and enforce limits that other young people will honor, if only eventually and begrudgingly.
The acting, writing, and premise of Eighth Grade are instantly engaging for anyone who has ever been a teenager or cared for one. The unflinching investigation of old and new themes in adolescence provides a cultural touchstone for further dialogue in families however they have formed. Moreover, the casting decision to use young teen actors as well as the writing decision to feature a wonderfully complex female lead character increase the sense of urgency to understand teen lives before they change—once again—into something unmistakably, unidentifiably familiar. Go see Eighth Grade and then have an consensual and free-flowing chat with the special teenager(s) in your life about things that matter to each of you.
Gregory C. Carrow-Boyd
Coordinator, More Than Sex-Ed