MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Bo Burnham. Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton.
It’s a strange world, indeed, when a truthful film about middle school is given an R rating. Of course, any parent could accompany their middle student to this film which would be extremely uncomfortable and, I guess, also underscore the truthfulness of Eighth Grade.
This is a very honest film that is not only in touch with the social media world of today’s youth but also plugged into the developmental insecurities of anyone straddling the great divide between the innocence of older childhood and the “grownup” world of high school. Kayla Day (Fisher) is the central character in Eighth Grade and the whole film is seen through her perspective, including her hope-filled advice videos that she produces and uploads on You Tube, including such topics as “Being Yourself” and “Putting Yourself Out There”. Kayla also spends most of her time on Instagram (since Facebook is more for parents) where she follows the accomplishments of her peers.
Kayla is a true outsider, observing life from the distance that a social media world actually accommodates very well. She has no close friends and is tentatively wanting to have a boyfriend, although the guy of her dreams seems disinterested and there is no one to help her break out of her doldrums, including a loving father (Hamilton) that Kayla pushes away (although she knows deep down that he is a good dad); such is the conflicting nature of early adolescence and the fragile nature of raging hormones and shifting self-esteem.
There is a lot to like and even admire about Eighth Grade, written and directed by the standup comic Bo Burnham, who began his career at the age of 15 by creating You Tube videos that included clever songs. Burnham worked closely with the young actress Elsie Fisher (who is the voice of Agnes in the Despicable Me films) and his cast of young actors to create an honest movie that truthfully depicted middle school today (if anything, he softened the material so that parents wouldn’t get freaked out). The film cares so much about Kayla, your heart can be broken as you feel her awkwardness and pray for things to work out for her.
I really wanted to like this film more than I did. I found its focus on Kayla (and the tight camerawork) to fall somewhere between claustrophobic and monotonous. Her relationship with her father was honest, but lacking a backstory (including the absence of her mother, touched upon towards movie’s end). I also had a hard time reconciling the shy girl with her video counterpart, while also accepting the possibility of these dual personalities (Burnham was able to pull it off in real life).
In spite of my reservations, this is a film for our time and one that should be seen soon by anyone who cares about reaching out honestly to kids in middle school. At least when they push you away and roll their eyes, you won’t take it personally.
Four halos: A truthful depiction of middle-school angst that is also empathetic and compassionate.
Two pitchforks: Casual swearing; teenage sex talk; frank sex education films; risky behavior, but no serious initiation; teenage drinking.
I would encourage any person who works with youth to see this film. It is an honest portrayal of the challenges faced by this group whether we want to admit it or not.
It forces me to think about how we get past the electronics and on to face to face interaction. How can we prevent this interaction from being lost? Definitely a place for the church to bridge a gap in our families' lives.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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