A painfully real coming-of age tale
It was just another day, a normal day, where I was speaking with a friend of mine. We both had our phones in hands and were speaking with those people, while chatting with each other. Showing each other memes was a part of it for sure. Although what we consider funny differed, it was going on and on. Somewhere in between, he found a photo of a classmate from school that he showed me. This classmate had a sticky note on his back saying some random thing, meant to annoy him.
What a cliché, right! Must have seen this already in a bunch of high school dramas. But that was not the worst part (!) The friend I was sitting across with told me this story of how it embarrassed that classmate, and he told me with the shortest detail, careful enough not to miss anything. And after that, he asked if he should send this to that guy, which he quite literally bullied back then. I get that, we grow up and tend to forget these grudges or leave them behind. Many times, the older ‘him’ is much different or changed for such thing to matter even a miniscule.
But that is not the case every time. Sometimes, these ghosts of memories haunt for so long that one possibly can’t seem to grow out of it. I’ve seen and met people who had not gotten over it, not for the sake of seeking sympathy, but rather because the bruises were too strong to get over. Their older selves are living reality with anxieties and fears that often get shadowed by the people with extreme confidence.
This took me back to a film that I had seen just a month before or something. Eighth Grade. A film that I wasn’t a fan of when I had first seen it. I disregarded it as just another teen drama. I hated the tendency of teenagers, getting sufficed by the technology and not treating others with the love that they seek. Alas, I realised how difficult or how excruciatingly painful it can get at times, despite of having realization of having been bad to others. I was able to comprehend the feeling of a person living with these anxieties, by getting an example of the same from the real life.
Not that I’m saying the film is about a bullied child or directly connecting it with the scenario I mentioned, because it’s more about the struggle one has with oneself. But, there’s a string connected in both the narratives. How we often see the one who bullies with this heroic quality of superiority and ignore so easily, the ones who got bullied. Just to get a laugh on something, we possibly ruin a person’s psyche. And the laugh is only from the people who hurt others, not the ones who are actually hurt. It’s the one who gets bullied who doesn’t laugh on this, I told him. It’s only when the tables are turned when we can begin to understand what the other person felt.
Now coming back to the film, Eighth Grade which came out last year got a breakthrough in its premiere at Sundance film festival. Bo Burnham, who directed it, was probably more known by the people of community that this film had as its central character. He’s a stand-up comedian who often creates a new wave of music which features comic lyrics that are intentionally funny and yet fused with the instrumentals that would seem or sound like the popular music. His audience is the one that appreciated the humour in that kind, the ones who find solace in the online content pouring on them, that they would connect with on a more personal level.
The central character from his film, Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher, is a thirteen year old girl, who has had a very unfortunate eighth-grade year. She had to go through the entire ordeal awkwardly, every day. The film tells the narrative of the time when she’s at the end of this grade and going to enter the high-school. Despite of being in this school for years, she had no friends. Not that she was conceited or arrogant; or went to lengths to dissociate with the people around her just to be anti-social. But she was quite shy to express what she believed she truly was.
She was not the confident-type who would interact with anyone that easily. She never really talked in her class and hardly had any face-to-face interaction. So much that she was ‘awarded’ as the Most Quiet student. She was given a box at the end of this event, which she had prepared for herself in the past. But the anxieties never let her grow to achieve the things she wanted to; or be the person she wanted to be, at the end of this eighth grade.
On other side, she used to post her day-to-day struggles in the form of motivational videos, on YouTube. Despite of having almost no views, she was content with being this person online. Because, it was painful to be that person in the real world. And it was not like she didn’t try to socialise. But the rejections and embarrassment was not worth of taking toll of her mental health. Despite of that, she kept trying and in her own words, tried to ‘put herself out there’. She was more enthusiastic about sharing this journey of hers with the people that she wouldn’t have met, but could empathise to be of a help.
And it hardly mattered ‘how’ she expressed it when what mattered was what she was able to express through it. This is what the film got really right in this case. It didn’t judge Kayla for her character or the way the generation expresses; it didn’t question her for being annoying to her father or didn’t show her in the bad light for not being able to express her in the real world. It just showed what a millennial kid like her does or behaves with the anxieties one has. In an interview, the director explained how intricately this generation is able to express their feelings, almost like a precision of screenwriter. What she expressed through her videos would be what I would have done if I had the resources in that age. I found it fascinating how it expresses the need of sharing these stages of the growth, no matter how insignificant or lame they might sound to others.
What one needs in these situations is someone who believes in them or rather stands by them and let them be who they are. Kylie had her father here. There was this moment in the film where Kayla apologizes to her father for being like that and expresses empathy towards him. He feels bad, not because of her general frustration or anger towards him, but because of the guilt she was carrying with her. She had the realization and was mature to put her in someone else’s position. But all her father wanted her to know how proud he was for having her, who wanted to help other despite of suffering in her angst. The scene was heartbreaking to say the least.
While doing all of this, the film does tap on some of the inevitable clichés of the genre, like Kayla looking at her crush Aiden (Luke Prael) where the highly energized track starts with him moving in slow-motion. Or even her giving hard time to her father who asked for just a bit of time for interaction. Maybe these genre-troupes are what would make it seem like an ordinary fair. But every small detail it came with needs more appreciation. Even the word ‘Gucci’ that she ends her videos with, is a cool-kid slang which is in itself asking for validation from the popular kids from her class. Or the weird interaction with her crush where he asks for a charger and all she could come up with is how her phone runs out of batteries and from time to time, and how she needs it too! This was the scenario she must have played in her head a lot of times and turned out quite the opposite in real.
What the film succeeds at is keeping these comic elements in balance with a darker reality of hers. And as said before, it never judges her. When she had to enter a pool with her classmates, it shows the horror she would be going through. When she takes the strength to sing Karaoke in front of them, it is shown as the bravest moment in her life. Even when she’s trying to tell the goofy kids who ignored her, about their misdemeanour, we see her fist clenching while walking towards them with determination and all the guts she has. She doesn’t look them in the eyes. Probably more because of she was clever enough to know this wouldn’t change their behaviour towards her. But here, after that, Kayla walks away with a victorious smile on her face, a smile that was missing for the most part.