By show of hands, how many enjoyed middle school? I would dare say that few of us did.
A popular parenting book on those years of childrearing is titled “The Rollercoaster Years: Raising Your Child Through the Maddening Yet Magical Middle School Years.”
Writer and director Bo Burnham captures this in his excellent movie, “Eighth Grade.”
It is the story of Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) who is entering her last week of eighth grade. She is leaving middle school and making the move to high school.
Kayla is introverted, but she tries very hard to put herself “out there.” One of the movies subplots is Kayla adding videos to her YouTube channel.
All of them have to do with some aspect of becoming more popular through the use of projecting self. These videos speak to the person Kayla wants to be, but what we see in her real life is a long ways from it.
One of the scenes deals with her being invited to the coolest girl in school’s birthday pool party.
The minute Kayla gets out of her father’s (Josh Hamilton) car, you can see the existential pain she endures.
When she emerges from the dressing room in her bathing suit, we watch as she painfully enters the water and finds a place where she can just be there and not need to interact with anyone.
Her father, Mark, seems to be lost in trying to help his daughter navigate this world where social media rules the day, not to mention the normal stuff that all teens go through.
In the scene where they are eating supper, Kayla has her headphones on, checking out Instagram. Mark has to yell just to speak to her. She responds with annoyance and quickly goes back to her phone and music.
Later in the movie, Kayla makes a friend with a high school student, Olivia (Emily Robinson).
Kayla gets invited to go to the mall and hang with Olivia’s friends. Her father takes her, and Kayla makes her way to the food court where the friends are.
After a few minutes of conversation, someone points out this strange guy that is looking at them. It is Kayla’s father.
One of the struggles for Kayla is she does not have a mother at home because she left when Kayla was young.
Burnham shows us what it is like to be a teen today: You have to follow the right people on social media; you have to be online always; there are huge pressures on them.
Teens feel like they have to perform and be this great person all the time.
For those of us who are not teens, Burnham makes us jump into Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine and take a ride back to the days when we were in eighth grade. For me, those are days I hoped I had forgotten.
The awkwardness of that age is put on display and it is maddening, but also magical. It was a time when we were finding our way forward. And that was important.
Another important point that I feel “Eighth Grade” offers is a chance for dialogue between those of that age and their parents. It provides an open invitation for parents to ask their children, “Is this the way you feel?”
What Burnham does here is give us a slice of life of what the typical eighth-grader may feel. And even if yours is not like Kayla, there is enough here to give you fodder for lots of talk.
A word about the rating: The movie is rated R because of language. Particularly one word.
The motion picture association that hands out ratings has a hard-and-fast rule: You use that word more than once and you get an R. This movie uses that word more than once. But I believe if your child goes to public school, she has heard it before.
MPAA Rating: R for language.
Writer and director: Bo Burnham
Cast: Elsie Fisher (Kayla Day), Josh Hamilton (Mark Day), Emily Robinson (Olivia), Jake Ryan (Gabe), Catherine Oliviere (Kennedy).
The movie’s website is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.