It Ain't Easy - Eighth Grade
It's a movie about the hardest of years in the easiest of lives. Following in the footsteps of movies like Juno and Lady Bird, it tackles one of the more difficult subjects--the teenage girl. So full of combustible pubescent angst, they swing wildly at anything in their path and expect the world to bend to their will. This can be difficult to capture. That it's Bo Burnham, a 27 year old YouTuber and comedian, who has captured this mercurial nature only makes it more impressive. Of all the films that have come before it, Eighth Grade somehow finds the most novel ways to capture just how deep-seeded those teenage emotions are and it does so with a modern bend that never feels forced. This is the world she lives in and this is who she is becoming.
Kayla Day is a teenage girl who is just about to transition from middle to high school. As she's not a part of the "cool" crowd, this time presents constant challenges for her--from crushes to pool parties, she struggles to find her way and her single father (played by Josh Hamilton) struggles with how best to help her find her way.
In her spare time, Kayla makes YouTube videos (not unlike the film's director, Bo Burnham). These videos act like a meta-framing for the movie as Kayla offers short lessons on life for her viewers like "Be Confident" and "Be Yourself." These are, of course, issues she struggles with herself, as she is just in the beginning phases of figuring out what matters and what doesn't in her life. Throughout, the film employs various tactics to try to amp up the trauma and show you how it is shaping who Kayla will be in the future.
The word I kept coming back to as I watched this was "authentic." This was 100% made by someone who vividly remembers what it was like to be in the eighth grade. None of the characters, no matter how small their role, feel like caricatures. Even the "villains," those archetypal 'mean girls' come across with a certain genuine feel. They don't go out of their way to be mean like some maniacal force for evil--they just ignore Kayla, as teenage cruelty often manifests itself. The result is that Kayla's pain comes across as earned, and it makes our understanding of her feelings all the more visceral.
While the stakes are ultimately low--Kayla will be fine--there are definitely moments where it doesn't feel that way. It almost feels like a horror movie when the film is not doing very much to protect her. Much like a baby bird flying for the first time, teenagers are pretty much on their own as they face new challenges. Parents are largely helpless if they don't know what is going on and the film does a beautiful job of outlining Kayla's decisions and the personal stakes at play. Unlike so many of her predecessors in this sub-genre, Kayla is a sweet, well-adjusted and oper-hearted girl. And while her experience comes without some of the heavier societal ramifications of other teens (race, poverty, violence, etc.), it's hard not to just want her to make it.
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