The Quiet Kid Wins

My middle school didn’t have a “most quiet” superlative, thank goodness, but if we had, I’m sure I would’ve earned it. When Kayla Day, the 13-year-old protagonist of Eighth Grade (2018), receives that very award, she takes it just how I would have—with silent mortification.

When I entered middle school, I quickly learned that newfound social anxiety paired with a natural propensity to observe doesn’t play well to an eighth-grade crowd. The disparity between who I felt I was and others’ perceptions of me lead me to often just shut up and bow out. At that age, I never could have imagined that the struggle I was feeling was important enough to fill a serious, psychologically thrilling film. So, witnessing Eighth Grade was the ultimate vindication.   

Director Bo Burnham’s thoughtful exploration of the “quiet kid” (who’s actually really talkative if you get to know her) not only reminded me of my own middle school years, but it made me feel that pain all over again. The details in this film are eerily spot on, and each of them brings a new pang of recognition. In one moment, the camera lingers on Kayla smiling as she mouths indistinguishable words while cool girl Kennedy opens a birthday present. It’s clear that Kayla wants to be a part of the group excitement, but doesn’t quite have the guts or know-how to really join in. This scene is emblematic of the supremely adolescent feeling of knowing you need to participate, but not being really sure of how to do so.

My chest was physically tight during the majority of the film, almost to the point of discomfort. I needed things to go well for Kayla to the point of obsession. I felt somewhat like a parent—maybe even my own mom or dad—watching a kid struggle so desperately with their self-worth while knowing how interesting and cool they really are. It encouraged me to extend a loving hand to little JR, to tell her what she feels is valid, and that it’s going to get better.

As I left the theatre, I wondered what the “popular girls” of my time would feel watching this movie. Would they relate to Kayla? Would they relate to Kennedy? Does everyone feel that way in middle school? Is that the point?

I broached these questions to my dad as we patiently shuffled out of the theatre. We stood on the curb outside and decided we needed a minute before calling an uber. He told me I’m lucky to remember what that felt like. That some people forget too quickly. And, though it would be nice to scrub away the awkward moments and self-doubt, I hope I always remember. —JR Atkinson

JR Atkinson is a sophomore at Wesleyan University, from Chicago, IL. She is planning on majoring in English and Film.

Eighth Grade
Directed by Bo Burnham
Written by Bo Burnham
Runtime: 94 Min.
Rating: R