The adults of this teen tale have more to offer the movie than just laughs.
Eighth Grade is a coming of age movie unlike we’ve seen before. With its slice-of-internet-life style and seemingly average protagonist, it perfectly depicts how confusing teenage life can be, especially in today’s society. The focus is naturally on Kayla and the other teenagers she encounters, but the adults that appear in her story have an impact worth praising. Most of the adults in Eighth Grade only appear in sparse scenes, but what makes them memorable is their stark yet hilarious contrast to the generation they’re trying to connect with. Bo Burnham’s grown up characters offer some of the best humor in the movie, but they also show the profound impact older characters can have in a coming of age story.
The star of Eighth Grade and her Youtube channel is Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an awkward and quiet thirteen-year-old in her last week of middle school. She struggles with what most of us went through at her age, but the big difference is the greater influence of technology on her everyday life than for any other generation before hers. All while trying to make friends at school, she also combats an obligation to her internet presence, which she eventually decides isn’t her true self. This divide between Kayla’s generation and older generations is an authentic and new addition to the regular coming of age story.
Bo uses the internet and more general approaches to convey the rift between kids and grown-ups. This aspect of a coming of age movie may seem like an inconsequential part of a young person’s story, but that disconnection creates the helplessness and loneliness that’s inherent to being in middle school. One way this is shown in Eighth Grade is through delightful humor. The adult figures at school who use words like “lit” and dab in front of the students make Kayla and the other kids roll their eyes but the audience laugh. We as viewers, no matter how much older we are than Kayla, remember the futile attempts by adults to try to keep up with trends they thought were important to us. Some of us may even be the perpetually behind adults we’re laughing at in the movie.
There are plenty of small details that contribute to the funny portrayal of adults in the film, like the band director’s long mullet braid or Kennedy’s mom incessantly snapping pictures of Kennedy opening gifts at her birthday party. These are the obvious details shown in the film because these are the details we would have noticed when we were young, and probably made fun of. They were what made the adults noticeably different from us and what we could understand about them at the time. We could not yet recognize they were trying to relate to us because they cared about us, so we either were embarrassed by them or laughed at them. The fact that Bo was able to capture that surface-level understanding of adults through minute details is a remarkable way to make the film feel even more authentically through Kayla’s perspective. In some ways, how the audience sees the adults in the film is how adults treat the kids, only seeing shallow details of them without trying to understand their inner life.
The glorious exception to that is Kayla’s father (Josh Hamilton). His respect for her and genuine attempts to understand her are clear from the beginning, even if those attempts don’t always break through Kayla’s barrier. It’s clear her dad is still out of touch and there are some issues she’s going through, namely trying to learn about sex, that she can’t talk about with her dad, or at least not comfortably. That intergenerational tension is an important aspect of the coming of age story. As Dan Shiffman says in “Mapping Intergenerational Tension in Multicultural Coming-of-Age Literature”:
“The experience of intergenerational tension becomes a catalyst for protagonists to think more deeply about their identity and to attempt to become the person they would like to be. It also helps them understand who their parents are…Protagonists attempt to define themselves against their parents, but conflicts between the generations are exacerbated by the frustrations and exclusions both generations continue to experience within the wider culture.”
In short, Kayla’s rocky relationship with her dad is inherent to understanding herself along with her dad in this coming of age story. The audience still laughs at Kayla’s dad, but we can see that whatever he does for her, it’s coming from a well-meaning place. His relationship with Kayla is extremely emotional to watch as an adult. The moments when Kayla yells at her dad for seemingly small things he does harks back to the same things we did to our parents when we couldn’t fully appreciate everything they did for us. We see Kayla hate her dad for what he does out of love and eventually come to appreciate him in the end, likely before many of us realized that fact.
As important as it is to create a story unique to the specific character in the movie, one of the other challenges of a great coming of age movie is making that story relatable to the audience as well. Incorporating adult characters into an adolescent’s story can offer plenty of relatability to a story, considering many of us had similar interactions with adults growing up. Our changing relationships with our parents and other adults is just as important as our friendships or anything else we experience as teens. The transition from contempt for adults to understanding their intentions is an important step in growing up, so it should be represented well in a movie about growing up. Few movies have used humor to tackle such a serious transition quite like Bo Burnham does in Eighth Grade. The funny adults in the film combined with Kayla’s other discoveries help make a coming of age movie that will bring you right back to being thirteen, thankfully only for 90 minutes.