I saw Eighth Grade with Mia, my sister in law, as she is entering her seventh grade year and it seemed like a good way to gauge how accurate the movie was to growing up in 2018. While the film was rated R, something that gave her mother pause, she ultimately ceded to letting my partner and myself take her. I blame Rotten Tomatoes, which ran an article saying that you should take your eighth grader to see Eighth Grade. We sat down in the back of the darkened theater in a pair of chairs that comically groaned as we pulled the seat out, watching trailers for movies that were probably going to be far more inappropriate and then. Well, then the movie started.
There’s a scene early on where our main character, Kayla, finds out that she has been selected for a superlative she doesn’t appreciate and I had a flashback to my own high school superlatives. An excited teacher coming up to me and telling me I’d been selected, not for Best Eyes or Most Memorable, but for “Least Likely to Get Married.” Apparently in the course of the years they’d been running superlatives, it had never occurred to them that having a category that basically said you were unfuckable might be insulting to the person who received it.
Mia, next to me, eating the remnants of popcorn gone too fast, keeps whispering “same” to her older brother at every beat. The time capsules. Kayla being invited to a party where the mother is doing the inviting. Casual selfies, posed. Same.
The first half of Eighth Grade, like perhaps the real eighth grade, is uncomfortable to the point where it is near unwatchable. The movie made me want to crawl out of my skin in a way that I haven’t felt since The Babadook but instead of a screaming child, it was middle school awkwardness, it was flirting with a terrible boy or going to a party where you know you aren’t wanted. It’s watching someone go through all the friendship red flags that you recognize from your own middle school experience, except as in a horror movie, you are trapped and unable to help. Don’t turn down that dark hallway. Don’t get into that car with that boy. The killer is right behind the flimsy curtain in the bathroom, everyone knows that.
The film is about growing up, but it’s also about a social media generation, the kind of kids who got Snapchat when they were in the fifth grade. My phone had Snake in the seventh grade. We had Xanga and Myspace, they have Instagram and Musically and any other number of services that I am no longer cool enough to know the existence of. For people older than me, it’s an even broader divide. We’re in the same generation, but we’re worlds apart — even in ways that the characters within the film cannot begin to comprehend. I was 11 when September 11th happened, a frequent flyer who remembers picking up her father from the gate of the airport where you could walk up, no security needed. There are adults walking around today for whom there isn’t a reality they can recall before that, and in another year there will be adults born after that. Full lives lived in the shadow of a defining moment of my childhood, and it feels like they’re outpacing me. That they always will be. Is this, I wonder, what growing up is actually like?
Back to the picture at hand.
There isn’t a lot to say about Eighth Grade. I don’t want you to misunderstand me. There is content to the film, it has arcs and rises and falls and comedic musical beats that are an interesting and effective way to segue into that moment where you see your crush doing…something with his hair or his dumb slip on shoes. It’s got all of that, but it feels like a movie you can’t help but relate to personally, as if it is drawing you into itself until you see only your reflection through Kayla’s Macbook lens.
After the movie, we ate pizza, sitting at a table with three adults and one seventh grader, talking about what middle school was like. What it was like to go on that date for the first time, or to have people you desperately wanted to be your friend but would never be your friend, or to play a musical instrument in a band. It felt, in that moment, leaving behind the story of Kayla, that you can picture your own history in those saturated frames. Your own reality displaced into that celluloid world.
Middle school for me was easily some of the worst years of my life, years where I was bullied and hit and targeted because I was a weird, awkward kid with no social skills. My only outlet became cruel comedy and an over-utilization of the fact that if someone thought I was creepy than they would be too scared to mess with me. For Kayla it seems lonely, a vision through a cracked iPhone screen where she is attempting to live her best YouTube life but cannot seem to figure out how to be the person she so desperately is selling herself as on screen.
Mia asked me why I kept harping that middle school wasn’t the best years of your life, why I said that maybe it would be good, but it would most likely get better. And the truth is that I wish someone had been there to tell me that. Eighth Grade kind of does that.