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On Watching “Eighth Grade” With a Ninth Grader

Across generations.

December 17, 2018
 
 

This weekend, The Wife and I watched the movie “Eighth Grade” with The Girl, who is in ninth grade.

The Girl was already familiar with Bo Burnham, the director and former comedian.  Apparently he has a following among tween and young teen girls. It doesn’t seem to be based on “heartthrob” status; it seems to be because he puts words to what they’re thinking. TG commented that she had never heard of a comedian becoming a successful movie writer or director. I mentioned that Steve Martin had done it well. She asked who Steve Martin was.

So, yeah.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a white eighth grade girl, Kayla, in a relatively upscale area. She’s an only child of a divorced dad. She’s painfully awkward, especially at the beginning of the movie; she doesn’t have any friends in school.  She’s a relatively dedicated YouTuber, making inspirational videos for nobody in particular. (At one point in the movie, the camera pans her computer screen as she looks at her channel.  Most of the videos have only one or two views.) At school, she wins the superlative for “most quiet,” to her mortification. She has a crush, whose presence is denoted with suitably unsubtle strutting music.  I had to smile in recollection of that punch-you-in-the-face feeling that crushes have at that age.

The actor who plays Kayla looks like she’s thirteen.  All of the eighth graders do. (As TG put it, “On Riverdale, they all look twenty-five and beautiful.  She looks relatable.”) The authority figures at her school are believable, too. They all look the part, and they have that blend of earnestness, jadedness, and cringe-y awkward appropriations of kid culture undertaken in the name of connection.  (When the principal “dabbed,” we all howled. When the narrator in the sex ed video introduced it saying “it’ll be lit!,” we all cringed in unison.)

TG pronounced that the movie got a lot of details right. In an assembly scene, a teacher is greeted with a shout from the crowd of “are you my Mom?”  TG reports that that actually happens, and that the look on the teacher’s face was the same look her teachers get.  Kayla has a wall calendar that TG recognized from her friend’s house. In a few scenes, she wears the same choker that TG likes to wear.  It even gets a Rick and Morty reference right.

I was glad to see the dad portrayed sympathetically; he was well-meaning and generally competent, aside from one believable-but-painful misstep. The movie sort of hinted that the Mean Girl’s mom liked him, but it didn’t really go anywhere with that. It was Kayla’s movie.

Naturally, the movie featured some moments that made for awkward viewing.  Kayla tries to negotiate her emerging sexuality in a few scenes that make any sympathetic viewer wince.  (The target demographic for the movie is too young to catch the American Pie reference.) Mercifully, the movie doesn’t dwell on those, but as an adult male viewer, I was horrified at what she had to go through.  The scary part was that it felt accurate.

The most jarring generational shock came during the active shooter drill. I went to school during the relatively calm interlude between the duck-and-cover nuclear drills of the cold war and the active shooter drills they have now. The worst we had was fire drills. TW asked TG if they got the drill right. She said they did, although they hide slightly differently. She was blase about it, but I’ll admit it shook me.  I have trouble with the idea that it’s inappropriate to ban machine guns, but perfectly fine to raise kids with the conscious awareness of the real possibility of a massacre at any moment. That seems backwards to me.  But then, I’m old enough to remember Steve Martin.

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