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EIGHTH GRADE

This post is a part of our New Voices Section.

Written by Michaela McGrath.

Eighth grade was hard. Maybe harder than we’d like to remember. It’s an age where you’re still a child but you have no independence, no money and nowhere to go but the sweaty halls of middle school. It’s at times painful, hopeful, terrifying, isolating, and exciting. And Eighth Grade knows it.

Burnham’s directorial debut follows Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) as she navigates the last week of her eighth-grade year. Kayla is an introverted kid who expresses who she wants to be through inspirational vlog videos. The distance between her words of wisdom and the way she actually lives her life is large, to say the least.

When you’re a teenager (or an anxious adult), it’s hard to think about anything but yourself. It’s self-consciousness to the highest degree. The film is effective partly because it understands this. Eighth Grade shows you life from Kayla’s point-of-view and no one else’s. We aren’t aware of anything that she isn’t, we don’t know secrets that she doesn’t know. This particular approach grants enormous respect to the protagonist, giving her the full space of the screen and of every moment.

Kayla’s myopic perspective makes the small feel enormous. A pool party is a source of panic. Singing karaoke is the greatest act of bravery. A conversation with a high schooler named Olivia (Emily Robinson), which makes her pace excitedly back and forth, is a triumphant moment. Even Kayla’s relationship with her father (Josh Hamilton) is seen through her eyes. He’s the embarrassing but attentive guardian, helpless to help her, but trying nonetheless. And all of it works because of Burnham’s deft direction and the film’s beautiful, pulsing electronic score.

Eighth Grade nixes the corny, blue-bird-popping-up-on-the-screen method of representing the internet. When Kayla interacts with her phone, the screen flows by almost like a river, as her eyes remained glued to the light, unmoving. It’s an organic element of her day, like gravity or air, rather than just some digital ornament. The movie perceptively captures how social media drives and informs emotions, not just abstract ideas. For Kayla, it goes beyond likes and tweets and becomes a place for her to exist.

In Eighth Grade, technology isn’t a shadowy force of evil or a glimmery utopia. It concedes that the truth may be somewhere in the middle. Social media makes Kayla lonely but it also ends up connecting her with others, letting her forge real friendships. It’s a dissociative world,  but it’s also a world where she can express herself freely without permission from others, even when she’s not being heard. The movie handles technology without the snark or limp satire that characterizes others of this nature. It understands something subtle about younger generations’ relationship to social media that’s different than it ever was: this time it’s personal.

Michaela McGrath is a recent graduate of Niagara University. She currently lives and works as a freelance writer in Upstate New York.

Twitter: @mxchaelamcgrath

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