Spoilers ahead. I suggest seeing this movie before reading. It’s a masterpiece.
I’m a sucker for coming of age stories. It doesn’t matter if it’s a movie or a novel. There’s something poetic about stories that center on discovering oneself at that age, or at least begin to discover. Eighth Grade does just that. It’ll make you cry. It’ll make you think about your adolescence certainly, even if it wasn’t made for how you experienced adolescence. Bo Burnham, the do-it-all comedian, said he didn’t want to make a nostalgia film. He wanted to capture what it felt like to be 13 now. Burnham told the Ringer’s Sean Fennessey during a recent podcast he knew he wanted to make it about current eighth graders, and as he researched he realized girls making YouTube videos at 13 were far more interesting than boys at 13 playing Fortnite.
Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher, wants eighth grade to be over. It’s a week left until graduation as the movie begins, and Kayla has her own YouTube channel where she shares her thoughts about growing up, having confidence and how to be yourself. Kayla tries to listen to the advice she gives throughout. She sings karaoke at a pool party, she writes a thank-you note to the popular girl, Kennedy, for having her over and she encounters the ever dreamy, Steph Curry-jersey wearing Aiden. But still, nothing feels like it’s going right for Kayla.
Kayla and her relationship with her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) rival any father-daughter relationship at that age. You don’t find out what happened, but Kayla’s mother left during Kayla’s infant years. Mark does his best, and like any good father he worries about his daughter. He tries to make small talk happen at the dinner table, but Kayla wants none of that. It’s not even in a rude way, either. You can tell Kayla struggles with something early on, and Mark never raises his voice at her, which in retrospect was a beautiful thing to see. He’s a good guy that’s goofy and embarrassing like any father with a middle school child would be.
The first evidence of a friend for Kayla doesn’t happen until eighth graders shadow high school students. Olivia, (Emily Robinson,) gives Kayla practical advice about how to handle the scariness of high school. Mostly, Olivia serves as a friend, because she knows what Kayla has been through in middle school. It’s a reminder to Kayla that even though middle school sucked high school has a chance to be something great. Kayla nervously phones Olivia later that day, thanking her for being such help, which is when Olivia invites Kayla to the mall.
It’s an awkward position for Kayla, hanging with four high school seniors at the food court, but she handles everything with confidence. Everything, for the most part, went well, until the drive home. It’s not something I’m going to write about, but what happens in the car basically destroys Kayla’s confidence, enough for her to stop making videos altogether.
“I know how to talk about stuff, but I’m not really good at doing stuff,” she says as an explanation to stopping the videos.
As sixth graders, students at Kayla’s middle school created time capsules. These artifacts were shoeboxes filled with pictures, memories and, in Kayla’s case, a killer Spongebob USB featuring a video. It hurts for Kayla to watch the video, because the sixth grade girl was filled with so much joy and excitement for what middle school would bring. Kayla can’t help but turn the video off, opting to burn the box with Mark in their backyard, which is where a special father-daughter moment happens.
It’s never explained, because it doesn’t have to be explained. Kayla has anxiety. She describes this butterfly feeling that never fades away. It’s a constant reminder to her as she tries to be confident, as she tries to participate in normal social settings, as she tries to be herself. Her class voted her most quiet, because they don’t know how cool, funny and smart she really is. The conversation with her father really helps her as the movie wraps up. It also helps that a goofy boy named Gabe, Kennedy’s cousin from the pool party who holds his breath underwater with the best of them as well as attempts handstands underwater, requests to be Kayla’s friend on Instagram. The two of them eat cold chicken nuggets, talk about God and reference Rick and Morty, just like any teenagers would.
It’s only for a brief moment, but Kayla smiles and appears confident and has things under control. Enough for her to make another video, although this won’t be on YouTube. It’ll be for her senior year of high school self. The message she shares with future Kayla is one anybody can relate to, and it’s so incredibly honest. It reminds me of Charlie’s final letter from The Perks of Being A Wallflower: “So, if this does end up being my last letter, please believe that things are good with me, and even when they’re not, they will be soon enough.”