Navigating Middle School Without Filters
“A lot can happen over a year, you could come back next fall as a completely normal person.” — Molly Ringwald to Anthony Michael Hall in
“Sixteen Candles” 1984
Eighth Grade is this generation’s Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, and Welcome To The Dollhouse. If you’ve wondered what adolescence in the digital age is like, this movie’s strength is in capturing Generation Z middle school life – while remaining universal.
Elsie Fisher plays eighth grader Kayla and it’s through her eyes that we relive eighth grade with raw intensity. Director Bo Burnham allows his character to look exactly like a real eighth grader; there are no kids who look like they’ve sprung from the Disney channel. Kayla is allowed to have acne, slouching shoulders, and baby fat. All of this is in perfect juxtaposition to a society that happily embraces staged Internet-filtered lives.
When we first meet Kayla she’s taping her vlog (YouTube video journals), bravely giving advice to kids her own age on “how to be yourself.” Kayla is very shy and, though she seems to come alive when making a video, her speech is still nervous, stilted, and packed with ummmms, likes, and you knows.
At this age kids seek advice from their peers, and now relying exclusively on peers for advice has become more insular than ever before when you throw in constant connection and social media. Of course kids are are trying desperately to break from their parents; it's a rite of passage. We all had our way of disconnecting. For those who grew up pre-internet, plugging in your headphones was one way to disengage. For kids in 2018, it’s the Internet. Now the dreaded "mean girls" intentionally ignore you while staring into their phones. Mean has never been so easy.
Kayla has a dad that really loves her, and it soon becomes obvious her dad is parenting alone. Dads can feel very uncertain about what to do with daughters and how to talk to them. This stage in their daughters’ lives can make them feel like they are walking on eggshells. Kayla’s dad is no exception, and his anxiety unintentionally feeds hers.
When Kayla goes to bed at night, she pulls out her phone and browses social media as an act of tuning out the world. She sees a digitized reality no real human can compete with. Using the light of the phone screen in the dark to reflect Kayla’s face is a stroke of genius. This is a perfect depiction of vulnerable kids barraged with images of fake reality. Scenes like this underline how harrowing every moment of adolescence can feel, and have us rooting for Kayla every step of the way. Kayla’s hopes and dreams for herself boil down to what we all hoped for year after year in Jr. high and high school – that the next school year holds the promise we might reinvent ourselves, or blossom into the well adjusted, less awkward person we hope to be.