Directed by Bo Burnham (2018)
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Jake Ryan
Running time 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA rating: R
by Jaime Davis
What were you doing when you were in eighth grade? Who were you? What were your hopes and dreams? Who were your friends? What did you do together? How did you spend your time? Did you like your parents? What kind of person were you wanting to be?
When I was in eighth grade I was a bit quiet, reserved, shy. I lived in my own dream world for most of it, playing with Barbies or G.I. Joes or other action figures, creating a fantasy world internally that I desperately wanted to match externally. This was the mid 90's, and I was obsessed with tv and movies. I had two 90210 sweatshirts. I didn't talk much. We moved around a lot at this time so I didn't have a ton of friends. In the middle of my eighth grade, we moved from White Plains, NY, a semi-bustling suburb of Manhattan to Laurel, DE, a not-so-bustling rural town close to like, nothing. We had visited Laurel a couple of times (my mom had friends there) but I sure as fuck wasn't crazy about it. So the move forced me a bit further into my shell, made me live in the Jaime Dream World that much longer.
Eventually, miraculously, I fell in with a group of friends. It happened gradually, and I'm thankful for them even to this day, despite not speaking with any of them much anymore. But the first friend I made in Delaware I still talk to from time to time - her name is Amy. Amy was a year older than me, so when I met her she was in ninth grade. A high schooler! Amy was always one of those cool girls with mystique - I'm not sure if she just had more confidence than everyone else, or if she just didn't give a fuck about what others thought - or maybe it was just a healthy combination of the two. She wore whatever she felt like. She loved Anne Rice novels, which I thought was insanely cool. She dated older guys. She had friends from all kinds of different "groups." She went to a Cure concert in full Robert Smith-inspired makeup. She'd go dancing at underage clubs in Rehoboth Beach, like XLR8. And you guys, she was kind. When I first met her I was wearing one of my (two) 90210 sweatshirts and I was mortifieddddd. But she liked me anyway! And became my friend. A lesser person would have written off the shy weirdo with too-big glasses and awful bowl-cut hair. But Amy didn't. I will always love her for that.
At the end of eighth grade, in the summer, Amy asked me to spend a week with her and her mother in Rehoboth Beach, which would become my frequent hangout once I got my driver's license. It was the only beacon of hope in an area where chicken farming was considered a lucrative career and girls graduated high school only to take a few community college classes before settling down with their boyfriends in modular homes, pumping out a few Delawarian babies. (This lifestyle freaked me the fuck out, even from the moment we moved there, and you know I got outta there as soon as I physically could, at age 18). This particular week in Rehoboth was a BLAST...we stayed up until 2am every morning, sleeping well into the afternoon; I started to carefully curate my high school addiction for Mountain Dew; we spent hours at the McDonald's on the main drag, eating in the window and making yummy faces at passersby like we were in a McD's commercial; we bought CD singles at the record store - Amy: There She Goes by The LA's, me: Supermodel of the World (You Better Work) by RuPaul - and proceeded to play them over and over and over again in our rented beach house; we ran around to all of our favorite stores every day trying on babydoll dresses and floppy hats we couldn't afford to buy; we ate more Thrasher's french fries than I ever felt humanly possible, and I can eat a lotta fries. Amy, being Amy, somehow met a group of older high school boys spending their summer at the beach and got herself embroiled in a mini Bizarre Love Triangle with two of them, both named Jeff (!!), in the span of oh, two days. Those Jeffs didn't know what hit 'em, and both of them, bros to the core, came to me for advice and shoulder-crying. While Amy was juggling them, I had my second kiss ever, with a brace-faced lacrosse-playing junior named Josh. My first actual kiss was with a girl, but for many many many years, the Josh-kiss was the one I would tell people was my first, out of fear. Not necessarily fear of what other people would think (though I think that was part of it - the 90's wasn't as gay and bi-friendly as I think we all re-imagine)...but fear for a very long time of admitting something I knew but wasn't yet ready to acknowledge. Having a boy kiss me felt like acceptance, of myself, from other people, and a bit of a relief that maybe I would be like everyone else. This action-packed week was eye-opening for a lil reclusive dreamer such as myself. I came back from that trip a new-ish Jaime...still on the quiet side but with a new understanding of the kind of person who was inside, and who I was hoping to be, come ninth grade time.
And I guess I'm telling you all of this because I had a very strong positive reaction watching Bo Burnham's excellent Eighth Grade. Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, a bit of a loner who's trying really, really hard not to be, which just felt a lot like my experience. What's different, obviously, is Kayla's having to go through teenhood during an age of intense personal scrutiny and social media usage. She spends countless minutes getting ready for selfie sessions, changing profile pics and forcing her outside to be anything from what's raging on the inside. She scrolls and scrolls and scrolls through multiple feeds, commenting sweetly on other people's IG and FB posts. She has her own (little watched) YouTube channel, but, so do a lotta people, spewing out inspirational advice to fellow teens on "putting yourself out there" and being confident and making friends. In offline world, she has a crush on a very unattainable, very gross little boy named Aiden (I would like to speak to your mother about what you want little girls to text you!). She lives with her single dad, who I have to say is the best recent movie dad since the dad in Call Me By Your Name. He's sweet and understanding and helpful and tries to give her everything he thinks she might need to survive what's coming next, in high school and beyond. She's in the band in school, as was I, and it's nice to see that junior high bands still suck an incredible amount and it wasn't just my junior high band. But I'd have to say the part that resonates with me the most is the pool party scene. It so accurately captures what it's like to feel unsure of yourself at that time, the crippling self-doubt that creeps in and takes hold, complicated when surrounded by peers who seem to have it all together and figured out already.
I'm not sure how Bo Burnham was able to get inside the mind of a young girl with such depth and insight and sensitivity. I so appreciate him for that. I had kinda almost sorta not really thought of him much since his small stint in Funny People. Eighth Grade encapsulates the ups and downs of that time - it's a perfect blend of heart and laughter and hurt and wanting and fear and shame and hope. And I know eighth grade Jaime would have wanted to be friends with eighth grade Kayla, that's for sure.