“And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone” – Janis Ian
Three films this year have gone deep into the minds and hearts of teenage girls who do not fit in anywhere. The first was Storm Reid as Meg in Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. Say what you will about the movie but there is no question that Meg as a protagonist is a revolutionary act. Quiet, thoughtful, way too smart Meg is looking something beyond what we ordinarily see teenage girl protagonists in Sci Fi or any other genre looking for. And then there is Thomasin McKenzie’s Tom in Leave No Trace. Taught to survive by her father, her curiosity and need for human connection drives her independence streak. And then there is Elsie Fisher’s Kayla in Bo Burnham’s astonishing debut, Eighth Grade.
Kayla is that rarest of rare archetypes who isn’t, for once, a pretty girl made to look “awkward” or who suddenly becomes an object of desire by the end, or even one whose budding sexuality is the key plot point. Her struggle is real, and it’s every day. Some of us know that struggle of showing up at school, hair still wet from the shower, your stomach lurching as get closer to school grounds – how awful it feels to have other kids look at you like you’re from another planet (at best), or don’t even see you at all.
Kayla, as obstinate as she is (with her father who is raising her on his own – doing his best), is a character worth caring about because, despite it all, she remains optimistic that not only can SHE do what she sets out to do to improve her tiny corner of the universe, but that she can help others “out there” to do the same. She broadcasts her thoughts on her youtube channel that no one watches. She asks every time for viewers to share or to subscribe or to like as a way of acknowledging that they see her.
And just like that Bo Burnham defines the hard-to-love macro universe of YouTube. All of those people who defy the troll armies of assholes, and who put themselves on YouTube to offer up something for free, something hopefully essential. It’s hard to find anything good to say about YouTube, and the generation that popularized it, but Burnham has.
Burnham very cleverly uses Kayla and her youtube channel as a kind of diary. Only instead of it being “it girl” Winona Ryder in Heathers or drop dead gorgeous Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, it’s sweet, awkward Elsie Fisher who doesn’t have an ounce of cynicism in her. Fisher’s Kayla is too embarrassed of her teeth to smile broadly, holds her arms close to her body in her bathing suit, sits alone, begs her dad to pick her up when no one will talk to her at a class party – and yet the Kayla we get to know over the course of the movie is so brave. Brave to wake up every day and face down her fears. Brave to summon the courage to talk to people who are in a different “class” than she is. She isn’t a genius, and she isn’t a princess and there is nothing overtly “special” about her that anyone would notice — unless they looked deeper.
There are so many great moments in Eighth Grade – when you aren’t grinning or laughing you’re sobbing. I can’t recommend the film high enough – both as a way to really understand at last what it is to be an awkward girl heading into adulthood but also to remember what it feels like to find hope in a world of despair, to reach for light amid only darkness.
What I responded to in Eighth Grade is what I feel sure any outsider teen in America would, regardless of background, economic status, cultural background, gender, orientation – we all grow up wanting to fit in, wanting others to like us as we are. The advise Kayla gives to her readers, that she tries to adopt for herself is good advice. Confidence, putting yourself out there, being who you are. This is what teenagers should all know and yet … and yet… somehow it just doesn’t work out that way.
Eighth Grade tells the truth – and when you tell the truth in art, the whole ugly raw truth – it embeds itself in a way fantasy never can. While of course, there is something in us that needs to sit in a cold dark room and stare up at a world that we will never have, looking at people we can never be, living in homes we could never afford. But we also come to cinema – to art – not for the magic mirror but for someone observant and thoughtful to peel back the layers of pretense and expose to us what we all know is the whole truth.
I sat there watching Eighth Grade with my 20 year-old daughter, my 15 year-old niece and my older sister as that whole truth washed over us. We all have our own torture stories of growing up. It’s a right of passage in which you thrive or it’s an endless sea of humiliation that you survive. We should all be lucky to have the spirit of optimism young Kayla somehow has. Life hasn’t taken her down yet, and from the looks of it, with a sensitive dad guiding her from the sidelines, it never will. The change in Kayla by the end of end of the film is subtle. She figures something out is all. She learns a thing or two about who real friends are, and thankfully, she’s on the right track knowing the good guys from the bad ones.
Nothing in Eighth Grade is earth shattering, this isn’t a commentary on Trump’s America, or on the middle class vs the 1%. It is simply a great story well told. We need more of those. This is the one of the best films of 2018, one that will be very hard to top as we head into Oscar season.