When I first read about the new film, Eighth Grade, I was beyond excited. Finally, a movie that would take an unflinching look inside that awkward time of life most people try to forget!
Then last week, I attended a screening of the film followed by a Q&A with writer/director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher. Throughout the event, I was continually struck by how helpful this movie could be to those of us who work with middle school students. Here are five reasons why I think it’ll make a difference.
1. It stirs up a level of empathy for middle school students that so many of us need to reclaim.
The film follows Kayla, an anxious young teen trying to find her voice, as she maneuvers through her last week of eighth grade. It does so in a way that is heart-wrenching, humorous, and so profoundly touching—I heard the word “visceral” used by more than one of my fellow audience members.
In the Q&A, Burnham explained that after watching countless hours of YouTube videos, he realized that most boys that age were talking about Fortnite whereas most girls were talking about their souls—hence his decision to use a 13-year-old girl as his main character. He also said that the experience of watching that girl walk into her first pool party could invoke just as much tension as watching a man about to get in a sword fight. That’s something we all need to keep in mind.
2. It takes an unflinching look at the influence of social media on today’s kids.
Kayla’s social media obsession takes center stage in the film, and the way that Burnham draws us into her digital cocoon is nothing short of remarkable. While she struggles to relate to people face-to-face, she goes home in the afternoon to make YouTube tutorials on tips for socializing and “putting yourself out there”—videos that nobody ever sees. In this interview with Rolling Stone, Burnham says that he didn’t make Eighth Grade to glorify or demonize the internet but rather to help people understand the unease it often creates.
3. It will lead to some big conversations about the use of smart phones in school.
There’s a raging debate taking place in middle schools around the world as teachers and administrators try to figure out what to do about phones in school. On one hand, we want to teach our students how things will be in the “real world”—but on the other hand, they’re still children with little self-control.
I’ve always been an advocate for helping students find balance, but current research and the scenes that take place in Kayla’s school make me think we need to wait until ninth grade until we allow teens to have access to their phones during the school day. It’s not so much about how kids engage with teachers, but how it impacts their interactions with each other. When Kayla finally gets up the courage to talk to her classmates face-to-face, she is met with heads buried in phones and faces glowing from the light of the screen. It’s painful to watch, but it’s something we all need to see.
4. It leaves no doubt as to the importance of Social/Emotional Learning (SEL).
Even though this film takes place during the last week of school—and Kayla suffers from anxiety—there’s absolutely no talk of homework, report cards, or tests. This seems to have been a deliberate choice, as it helps reminds us what it’s like to be 13. When you’re easily distracted by the slightest glance of your crush or the ruminating fear of something stupid you said, there’s very little room for the quadratic equation to set in.
Fisher is also the author of a powerful essay about how the internet both helped her figure out that she had anxiety and became her method for dealing with it. While the web can be an amazing tool for healing and connection, she deserved to be getting that from her school environment as well.
5. It’s full of positive messages and healthy choices—and is actually teenager-approved.
In this great Los Angeles Times piece, writer Amy Kaufman takes a group of teens to the premiere of the film. They all agree that it’s realistic—like, often painfully so. While it is rated R—mostly for bad language and some sexually suggestive material—it’s much more innocent than what the average teen sees online. (That’s probably why experts say it’s appropriate viewing for ages 14 and up.) It’s certainly not a movie you would show in class, but it still serves as a great learning tool for teens. Positive messages far outweigh any of the negative ones, and although we often see Kayla struggle with decision-making, she always makes good choices in the end. Plus there’s no mention of drugs or alcohol in the film, and as much as her father struggles to relate to his adolescent daughter, he never ignores her for his phone.
The high school girls Kayla meets in the film are also kind, inclusive, and unafraid to speak their minds, making them strong role models. We see the beneficial effect social media often has on older teen girls, as it can help them develop into advocates for themselves and others—if they can just make it through their middle school years in one piece.
When it was time for questions after the film, I had a particular one for Fisher: “What advice would you have for us teachers, so we can avoid being as ‘cringey’ as the ones in the film?”
Her answer: “Treat your students like people, because that’s what they are. Also, you’re all doing a really good job. Like, I mean, really good.”
Eighth Grade will open nationwide beginning July 20th. Hopefully there’s a screening somewhere near you.