Review: Eighth Grade
Eighth Grade is the most endearing labor of empathy. It is both a product of our times and a timeless tribute to one of the most trying phases of life: the edge of middle school adolescence. It’s been more than a decade ago but less than two since I was there, but I’m surprised just how much of that feeling I still remember.
Actual eighth grade was the home stretch of hell. When you’re in the public school system, the social climate feels like the entirety of your world. The be-all end-all. It’s all that exists. There are no paychecks to plan around, medical bills to pay, or distant relationships to nurse - no distractions to ground you to the real world and make you step outside of yourself. For a minimum of eight hours a day, five days a week, you are locked in a heightened microcosm with the same faces, friends, and fears.
It’s pretty brutal, honestly. (At least it was in the early-2000s and I sense little has really changed for the better.) When I was that age, insults and cutting jabs were a second language and having a quick comeback or quip was more important than air… which was undoubtedly filled with wafting clouds of AXE body spray. It was a verbal bloodbath of insecurity and all you had to do was never show weakness under any circumstance for fear that the nearest bully would remember for the next 4-6 years. Looking back, I wish I had been better. Watching Eighth Grade was an eye-opening throwback to those times - times that are still very real and consuming for people in our lives and our families. While the film is a bit kinder in comparison to my own memory, the environment, the tone, and the atmosphere are still quite true.
Eighth Grade somehow taps that memory bank like nothing else as you watch a young Kayla Day on her last week of middle school with all the potential of the world (read: high school) in store. Actress Elsie Fisher captures such a raw hesitance and anxiety in the personality of Kayla. Unsure of herself with virtually no friends to speak of, she pours her wishful, unformed philosophy of personal betterment into a YouTube channel, seemingly preaching to herself as much as anyone. In one scene we find her explaining how to be confident on the coattails of a terribly botched attempt to talk with her crush, soon followed by a meek attempt at making friends, and then another rather painful shot at flirting. Whether you were the popular center of attention or the anxious outsider, Kayla’s uncertain demeanor is undeniably endearing. Decidedly belonging to the latter demographic, personally, it’s jarringly relatable to watch it unfold. In many ways, I found myself cringing at a younger portrait of… me.
But that sense of empathy doesn’t stop with Kayla. Her single father, Mark, is the Paul Rudd of dads. Dorky, kind, and self-deprecating by default, he tries so terribly hard to be the father she both loves, and the one she needs in order to be all she can be. So often you’ll want to echo his earnest advice and corny words of encouragement because I think just beneath the surface, they’re the same words we wish we would’ve heard at that age like a long belated reassurance to our childhood. Mark offers her the patience of a thousand single dads (sometimes to a fault) and while he doesn’t perfectly navigate every turbulent moment, he never stops trying. He never stops loving his daughter.
I have spent the vast majority of my life looking back with contempt at every year that has preceded - how I looked, how I talked, how I mistreated someone… how hopelessly consumed I was with my own anxieties. Maybe I’m alone in that disdain but I think most of us can conjure up some measure of nostalgic disapproval. Having gone through this exercise of remembering once again, this time with the advantage of seeing it through the filter of Kayla’s narrative, my contempt began to ebb.
Both a caution and a love letter to that fragile age, I think Eighth Grade helps us look with mercy - both at our former selves and the generations yet to come. Those present complications of paychecks and bills and friendships can sometimes distract us too much. Christ himself claimed the kingdom belongs to these very children, all awkward and adolescent and insecure (Matthew 19:14). This film may just be the reminder we need to foster a long-neglected compassion for those who, like Kayla, are just trying to navigate the now with their head above water.