Monday, November 5, 2018

Eighth Grade Review

"Do I make you sad? I don't know. Sometimes I think that when I'm older, I'll have a daughter of my own or something...and I feel like if she was like me, then being her mom would make me sad all the time. I'd love her because she's my daughter, but I think if she turned out like me that being her mom would make me really sad."

There was a time in my life when I probably seemed fine to the outside world, a fun kid who tried his hardest to face each day with optimism instead of despair, but the image I portrayed to everyone around me was a fallacy. On the inside I was struggling, medicated twice daily from a recent grand mal seizure that resulted in an official epilepsy diagnosis, a subject that should seemingly be off limits to be the source of bullying but being thirteen defies all logic or sensible reason most of the time. I walked through the halls in a malaise in increasingly larger clothes than I had worn only one year earlier thanks to a rapid yet in retrospect totally predictable weight gain. I was called twitch by a certain small but vocal section of my peers that found it very fulfilling to pick the scab over my epileptic wound, each day I wondered if they would feel guilty for their words had they been there that night in that hotel room when my parents and older brother weren't sure what was wrong with me, weren't sure if I would wake up again, a vacation turned upside down with an ambulance ride and speculation of brain abnormalities. Probably wouldn't have changed a thing. 

The worst year of my life was eighth grade. I never liked school all that much, but I can still vividly remember one very specific night of my life, the night in which Christmas break ended in early January of 1998. It's one thing to dread the return of waking up early and strict class schedules and homework, that's to be expected from a vast majority of not only adolescents but from adults forced to return to work after a vacation, but my response on this one particular night was emotional to the point that it would seem irrational to an outsider looking in as I barely slept a minute due to crying for hours straight. Thousands upon thousands of nights have come and go over the years and are never recalled again, but for whatever reason I will never forget that night. I will never forget a lot of what happened during eighth grade.

Bo Burnham's debut film Eighth Grade came at a very interesting time in my life where I am young enough to still not only remember that year but still feel a touch of the pain derived from it as well, and also being that I am a father of an 11 year old girl who will be in middle school in a blink of an eye and I just have to hope she has a better experience than I did. My ability to connect to two characters in the film, the awkward and hopeful yet damaged and sad lead played wonderfully by Elsie Fisher as well as her father Mark played by Josh Hamilton, a man who loves his daughter with everything he has and always wants to be there for her but isn't 100 percent comfortable or confident in his ability to connect. Where I am more fortunate than Mark is that he is a single father in the film whereas I have an amazing wife, but that only made me more sympathetic to his character as I can't imagine having to do this alone.

I connected with Eighth Grade because the film feels so honest. It's really easy to tell a derivative and lazy story about teenagers riddled with cliches and tropes painfully fatigued from overuse but Burnham crafted something extraordinary here because it is laser focused on avoiding bullshit and not manipulating the emotions of the audience. There is one scene in particular in the film that is so harrowing and uncomfortable to watch mostly because you just know how delicate and difficult it likely is to swallow for many young girls as well as women watching who faced something similar, and the reason it hurts is because it plays out with such credible and sincere honesty. I never had to face something like that nor was I ever the person putting someone through such an experience, yet I can still say with total confidence that Burnham captured something raw and real there.

I loved Eighth Grade in part because of how much I hated eighth grade. Emotions from over twenty years ago came bubbling to the surface as I witnessed this superb piece of cinematic storytelling unfold and when the film ended I knew it was special, but over the course of the last couple of days since I have reflected on it and recognized it's even more than that. I hope parents ignore the R rating and allow their children to watch this movie when they are ready because it is important for them to consume stories that feel authentic to what they are really feeling, what they are really going through on a daily basis. My daughter has only recently began fifth grade and even though we are watching her as her eyes grow wider to the world around her and the realities of adolescence, she just isn't in Bo Burnham's wheelhouse yet with this one, but when the time is right we will sit down and watch this together. I already know she will see at least a bit of herself in Elsie. I know I did.