Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Surviving Eighth Grade

I’ve been slow to see Bo Burnham’s debut feature, Eighth Grade, and slower to write about it. Maybe I’ve sensed from the start that this modest film is not for everyone. My husband, for one, just didn’t get what the fuss was about. Maybe that’s because he’s male, or because he has only a dim recollection of living through those difficult middle schools years. As for me, I remember all too well the social struggles of junior high.  As we matured at different rates, my “forever” elementary school pals left me behind, desperately trying to figure out where I belonged. But at least, I didn’t have to navigate the challenges of 24/7 social media: it was bad enough to throw parties to which nobody came.

The grade school years seem to hold great interest for today’s filmmakers. And why not? There was a time, back in the late Sixties, when the whole artistic focus seemed to be on the changes undergone by a young person during his or her stay at college. College was where kids left the safety of home, discovered love and social responsibility (and sex), and emerged as newly-minted adults. (See Goodbye, Columbus and Getting Straight and any number of films that took place on and around college campuses.) Later John Hughes and others explored the world from the point of view of high school students. Hughes was making movies in the Eighties, but the high school movie is still with us: see this milieu used to satiric effect in outrageously comic flicks like Mean Girls and Easy A.

We know that high school life has gotten even more complicated of late. Such big-news events as the college admissions scandal and a whole string of campus shootings (leading to the recent suicides of two Parkland students in the aftermath of last year’s tragedy) chillingly remind us that today’s high schoolers are hardly immune to the problems of the adult world. But 2017’s Lady Bird was refreshing – and highly influential to my writing students – in that it sidesteps the big public catastrophes in favor of paying close attention to one lively but confused young girl as she transitions from high school senior to college freshman . The outside world doesn’t much intrude upon her daily existence in Sacramento, California: there’s plenty of drama going on inside of her to fuel a ninety-minute story.

Eighth Grade’s heroine, Kayla Day, is a great deal younger than Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. The film follows Kayla through her final days of middle school, just before she’s en route to high school. To show the gulf that exists between her and high school seniors like Lady Bird, the script includes a scene in which the high school kids she’s shadowing marvel that when Snapchat made its debut, Kayla was only in fifth grade. In other words, pretty much her whole life has been built around social media technology. Though she has no real-life friends, she’s constantly going through the motions of affirming her social worth via an online presence. In person she’s shy, lumpy, and basically ignored as she walks through the corridors of her school or attends a pool party where she really isn’t wanted. But on her podcast (viewed by almost no one) she’s chatty as well as quick to give advice about how to find happiness by being your own best self.

This is a story for today: Kayla’s school holds active shooter drillers. But there’s sweetness in the fact that Kayla’s moment of truth comes from a simple shoebox “time capsule” reminding her that this too shall pass.

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