The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “Eighth Grade,” click here.
The woman next to me and I watched most of “Eighth Grade” in the exact same position — fingers over our eyes, cringing in our seats. She looked to be 15 years younger than me, but we both knew exactly what was happening onscreen. And we were glad it wasn’t happening to us.
“Eighth Grade” is the funny, sad, sensitive story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a 13-year-old who is finishing up her last week of eighth grade — a time that is the BEST WEEK EVER and also TOTALLY SUCKS. She wants to be seen, but she also wants to blend into the walls, a contradiction best exemplified when she is (quietly) disappointed that she didn’t win the “Most Quiet” superlative. Social media makes this possible — Kayla films YouTube videos that no one watches; she spends a good chunk of time scrolling through Instagram, liking the pictures of the popular kids who don’t talk to her; and her Twitter feed is dominated by blue-checked celebrities who will never know her. Social media is a big chunk of her life, the way it is for most teenagers today, but writer-director Bo Burnham never condescends. There’s never even a whiff of “well, she spends too much time on her phone!”
For those of us who grew up in a time when passing notes was the preferred method of classroom communication and we had to wait a week until our mom could drive us to CVS to pick up our homecoming pictures, it is so easy to think, “Whew! I’m glad I’m not a kid today.” And I AM glad I’m not; not only are my awkward fashion choices (I was into REALLY big earrings for a while) preserved only in yearbooks, but having to memorize phone numbers means that, even though I might lose my keys once a week, I will know my friends’ parents’ phone numbers FOREVER.
It’s OK to empathize with Kayla and be glad we’re not her, but it’s a short step from “I’m glad I’m not growing up now” to “and if I WERE, I would definitely do things better than the kids who are.” The only reason we adults aren’t growing up today is the same reason we didn’t grow up during the Black Death: luck. It’s easy to be sure that we’d be the ones washing our hands in 1348, just like it’s easy to be sure that we’d never Snapchat nudes to the popular guy who asked.
So when you see “Eighth Grade,” don’t just cringe and thank the God of Teenagers that it’s not you up there on the screen. The issues that Kayla deals with are the same ones that 13-year-old girls have dealt with ever since the first caveteenager snapped at her dad for eating his saber-toothed tiger all weird, GOD. But look beyond the commonalities — and then try to look beyond the differences. Take some time and ask why Kayla uses the social media that she does and how that must affect her. Don’t assume she’s doing it wrong, and don’t be so sure you’d do it differently. Social media is one of the ways Kayla navigates the world; instead of mocking her compass, try to follow behind her for a bit.
More Reelists from Kristen Page-Kirby