(SIFF review) Eighth Grade: The Grandeur of Liminality

Let’s face it, middle school is the most embarrassing moment of our lives. I feel like I’ve blanked out that part of my life so that I have a hard time piecing it together for this review. I remember that during middle school, I sacrificed my lunch and gave it all to the boy I liked, abused the XD emoticon and the word “swag” in my texts, thought hanging out with girls isn’t cool, reblogged pointless “muggles aren’t able to reblog this” posts on Tumblr and felt like I was the king of the world, and had a crush on one of my teachers. I’ve been writing blog posts for as long as I can remember, and my middle school posts are…. questionable in taste. (It’s out there somewhere. Go figure.) Middle school is embarrassing because it is a time of liminality — a transition from childhood to adulthood. Oh, how our changing bodies can play tricks on us so much.

Eighth Grade, the winner of the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival’s Golden Space Needle award, simply tells the story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an eighth-grader who is about to graduate in one week, who is seen as quiet except in her vlogs she uploads to YouTube. I was mainly interested in watching this film because of the scarcity of films portraying our middle school selves (probably because we’ve been shelving that time of our lives in the back of our minds?), however, a plethora of movies about our high school lives have been filmed, and films about our elementary school lives are embedded into the kids movies genre. In Eighth Grade, writer and director Bo Burnham (who made one of my favorite Vines, RIP Vine) captures this confusion of being in middle school in the midst of the confusion of being in the late 2010s. I went to a screening of this film in downtown Seattle with both Burnham and lead actress Elsie Fisher in attendance; the theater was extremely packed with standby audiences in line. The enthusiasm definitely shows something. When the title card rolled after the opening montage, I found my jaw dropped.

I was expecting this film to be the next Lady Bird because when I saw the trailer, I feel vibes of honesty and unparalleled feeling that I got from Lady Bird. However, this film is very different, mainly because of the setting — it’s about an eighth-grader living in 2018, and it’s cringey AF. The teachers dabbed during assembly to appeal to their middle school students, Kayla had a Justin Bieber phase, she always yells at her dad, and the students were all about that Circle game. But, that’s the point; the characters in the film are made to be cringey because we used to be cringey. I remember reading awful Superwholock fanfiction during that time and even though I was a little bit cooler because I listened to grunge music, I also had a Justin Bieber phase. The film also shows the imperfections evident in our middle school lives: acne, sloppy makeup, braces, and many more. Burnham forces us back to that time of embarrassment, and it adds on to the experience of watching this film.

Eighth Grade might take us into another time of our lives, but this film is very specific and interconnected to the world we are living in right now. We see Kayla’s school holding active shooter drills (still a grim reality that makes our world a dystopia) and Kayla scrolling through Snapchat filters to see which one fits her mood that day. These scenes feel like background noises to Kayla’s life and her pursuits, however, with Burnham’s masterful portrayal of interactions on the internet, there is an artistic nuance in watching a thirteen-year-old on her glowing screen. If modern technology such as Snapchat and YouTube is removed from this film, this film wouldn’t work.

Being set in our age, this film is also frank about being uncomfortable. In the liminal phase, Kayla has to face truths about adult life, including rape culture and her sexuality. There are scenes where Kayla’s horny middle school crush asks her about her blowjob abilities (in which she Googles tips to give a good blowjob afterward) and even a particularly uncomfortable scene where she found herself playing a distressing game of truth or dare with a predatory male high schooler. The collective audience at my screening shouted out expressions of worry, including myself. This makes me think about how rape culture is so embedded in our lives that it is often dismissed as “it happens every day”, but when seen through the lens of thirteen-year-old Kayla, it feels extremely saddening. I felt like I was Kayla’s mom watching through her lens, not wanting anything bad to happen to her. And I believe that the collective audience felt like that as well.

A great scene from Eighth Grade where Kayla (Elsie Fisher) and her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) shared heart-baring confessions.

The main thing I cherish about Eighth Grade is the fact that it embraces its variety of emotions. The movie reminds me of Lorde’s statement in her performance at the 2017 Bumbershoot festival, where she mentioned that her favorite type of fans is teenage girls. In my review of her performance, I saw that it was a wonderful statement because sometimes teenage girls are discredited for their feelings when in truth those grand feelings are valid; this became one of the strong points of Lorde’s latest album. The same thing could be said for Eighth Grade — Burnham masterfully puts strong emphases on feelings that are grand for Kayla, for example, her insecurity before opening the door to a “popular” girl’s pool party, the loud dreamy music played when she stares into the eyes of her crush, or the escalating music playing when she checks her phone that suddenly turns into silence when her dad interrupts. Music and cinematography play a big part in portraying Kayla’s dramatic emotions, and Burnham shows us that these feelings are not to be discredited.

In the 2010s we see cinema shifting from pretentious characters to relatable ones. Burnham mentioned in a Q&A at the end of the screening that it wouldn’t work if he made Kayla a cool thirteen-year-old who listens to The Velvet Underground. There’s a lot of these types of quirky characters in indie films in the 2000s, most notably Manic Pixie Dream Girls like Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim vs the World. It’s easier to find characters like Kayla in indie films nowadays (the characters that came to my mind are Simon in Love, Simon, Christine “Lady Bird” Macpherson in Lady Bird, and Chiron in Moonlight) and I think that this is a great shift, as in this age of being true to ourselves, we long to see ourselves represented accurately in film. Burnham also mentioned in the Q&A that a movie doesn’t have to revolve around a poet secluding himself in the woods to reflect the human condition. In my opinion, through movies like this, we are exposed to a playback of our lives in the rawest possible way, and the medium of films allows this to become our own introspection of the human condition.

By the end of the screening, I saw a middle schooler walking out of the cinema dabbing. He previously asked a question to Burnham and mentioned that this film is so relatable to him. The usual me would be annoyed by these types of cringey middle schoolers, but after watching Eighth Grade, I felt a warmth of understanding towards them. I smiled, remembering the times I thought having braces was cool.


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