Filmmaker Bo Burnham's directorial debut, "Eighth Grade," shares his assumptions about the worries and challenges facing an eighth grade girl named Kayla.
Growing up in a single parent household, Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher, is still struggling to develop social confidence during her final week of eighth grade. Next stop: high school.
With no friends and choosing not to communicate with her dad -- Fridays find her wearing ear buds at the dinner table -- Kayla is seduced into believing that the Internet and social media can be paths to acceptance, if not popularity. The film (and Burnham) is no friend of social media, although he captures society's addictions, placing a cell phone in the hand of practically everyone who is not swimming in the popular kid's pool.
The movie has earned raves. It left me with mixed feelings. Admittedly, my own eighth grade days are decades into the prior millenium, and Dylan was warning us "The Times They Are A Changin'" even back then.
Fisher's performance is very good. Some adults (Kayla's dad, Kennedy's parents) come across as stereotypically clueless. Regardless, Burnham is making an overlapping statement about middle school, yet Kayla will not strike anyone as the average eighth grader.
Desperate for friends, Kayla is not honest when making youtube videos about "being yourself" and "putting yourself out there" that few bother to watch.
Burnham's film is rated R, meaning those under 17 legally must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. The filmmaker may be correct when he says that today's eighth graders already are aware of everything shown or talked about in "Eighth Grade." Yet his primary character, who has a crush on Aiden (Luke Prael), is ignorant of a common euphemism he uses for oral sex; she is disgusted when she researches it and realizes what she told him.
Continuing to stress the sexual aspect, the film introduces a high school boy hoping to use a game of Truth or Dare to take advantage of the younger girl's want-to-please naivete.
Viewers may feel for Kayla the most when she apologizes for doing the right thing, arriving home confused and distraught.
I was curious how the young movie fans at home would regard "Eighth Grade." My wife and I are guardians to our three eldest grandchildren. Gage and Hailey are college age; Tabi is in high school. They remember middle school years, not always fondly. I asked them to watch this movie, discuss it and share reactions. Call it personal homework.
Gage said the film failed to connect "to what I experienced in eighth grade, or even high school. However ... people want to be accepted in society and feel able to present themselves; with today's technology, it is easier to put yourself out there for people to see."
He was uncomfortable with "how sexual themes were handled." Gage added, "I don't agree with how the dad was portrayed, as he seemed distant from his daughter. I think parents want to be more involved. I did like the movie's subtle message about Kayla wanting to be accepted. But I wanted to see more of her being depressed because of how society responds. We don't really see any psychological problems with the main character until the last several scenes.
"... Overall, the movie did a good job portraying its message to the younger generation. But it missed the mark. Focusing more attention on her depression rather than the sex, in my opinion, would have made this a more personal and better movie."
Hailey, 18, did not find Burnham's view of middle school realistic, in part because his film never touches on in-school bullying.
"Eighth grade is a troubling time for a lot of people," she began. "It was for me. ... There was bullying in my grade, and there was a lot of it. Teachers would say they would take care of bullying, but in reality you were just put on another waiting list. I mostly stuck to myself in middle school, since my friends were in regular classes."
Hailey added, "Drama happened a lot my eighth grade year, but it was usually (about) who stole someone's boyfriend or who stole someone's necklace."
Nor did she buy the Truth or Dare sequence. "Some high school guys can be jerks, but I don't know any who would dare go that far. ... The girl was socially awkward. I know, who isn't at that age? But this guy (filmmaker Burnham) made it look like the only way for girls to fit in was through being popular and having sex. ... The movie stressed you should be yourself, which Kayla never freaking did.
"By the end, the movie said you need to be yourself no matter what. I agree with that. But it did not ever show any correlation to middle school."
Tabi, 17, first wrote out a very complete plot summary, and then reflected, "The parts I related with were wanting to fit in, and being nervous about going to high school ... I personally do not think eighth grade girls would relate to the sexual references. Although, those are issues that teenagers now face.
"I did not identify with it. It never mentioned bullying, which is a bigger problems teens face than social awkwardness. If the bullying aspect was added, it would be easier to relate to it. But it is a pretty good movie and provides some insight on what young teens are facing nowadays."