Kids and teens in movies tend to be verbal, clever, quick, culturally aware, and sassy. To use the inevitable cliche, "wise beyond their years". They observe the events around themselves mordantly, understanding the hidden motivations of those they have to deal with. They might be, often are, horrifically oppressed by those who are dumber and less worthy than them, but who have a temporary ascendancy through circumstances, age, or legal authority. Eventually these clever kids manage to figure out a way out of their seemingly impossible situation, all while making pertinent and well-constructed observations.
Eighth Grade is nothing like that.
Life as it is lived
Kayla, the main character of the movie, is, well, normal. She is smart, but not that smart. She tries to be articulate, but talks like teens normally do, with lots of spacers words, like "like", hesitations, wanderings, assertions immediately softened, and sentences that end somewhere completely different than where they started. She is more potential than actual.
She wants pretty much what everyone else wants. She wants to look better than she does—the actress, Elsie Fisher, had a significant case of acne, which apparently had made her hard to cast in other roles. It was real life adolescent skin. In one clever moment, Kayla spends quite a bit of time in the morning putting on concealer while watching a YouTube video. Then she gets back into bed and takes a picture of herself, affecting to be dismayed at how she looks right out of bed.
She has her own, barely watched, YouTube channel, where she gives others the life advice she herself has so much trouble following.
When real life situations get difficult, she genuinely does not know what to do. At one point a boy, older than her, tries to take advantage of her vulnerability, and when she resists, gets all pouty, and they both implicitly agree that it is all her fault. It's a brilliantly paced and excruciating scene, and the fact that what happened will never be seen or resolved is part of its power. It's not a tragedy, just the kind of thing that happens.
Is this really a movie?
Movies are a realistic medium, but often bootleg in theatrical techniques when they want to juice things up. Eighth Grade has the courage of its convictions. The incidents are small, the people involved flawed, the connections fleeting or missed. Kayla's father loves her, though she finds him just as exasperating as any thirteen year old finds their parent. Having been a befuddled dad myself, I am totally sympathetic with his position.
Everyone is on screens, but the movie has no "position" on this. It is neither good nor bad, it is just the way these people live, the water they swim in. That observational position is perhaps the bravest choice of all. The kids are just kids, as clueless or mean or loving as they always were, just in a new idiom. There is no deep tragedy here, either personal or societal.
It also helped that it didn't have any actors in it that I recognized.
Should you see it?
I'd say definitely. My date, who has a child that age, was very moved by it. I didn't cry myself, but I'm tough that way.
When you see the movie, let me know what you thought.