Five Paradoxes on Teens From the Eighth Grade

I just saw the movie, “Eighth Grade,” and for the entire 94 minutes, felt like I got to climb into the brain of a young teen coming of age.

It’s the story of Kayla Day during her last week of eighth grade—detailing her feelings about her body, her virtual friends, her popularity, her wishful love life and her anxiety about them all. It is raw and real, not overproduced or sensationalized like so many movies today full of computer graphics and special effects. You actually feel as though you’ve stepped into her shoes, experiencing every panic attack, each anxious encounter, and the flood of emotions both wonderful and awful that come with graduation, infatuation and teenage frustrations. 

A Life of Paradox

Here is why I enjoyed the movie. It portrays a dad, often appearing quirky, even awkward because he’s unsure how to parent Kayla well. And it portrays the paradox this generation of kids experience today. Let me offer a few examples:

1. Teens today have it so good, yet have it so difficult.

Middle class students today have never enjoyed so many amenities, such as smart devices, convenient options and solutions for their problems at every turn. At the same time, social media makes life more complex and even more depressing because students can see all that’s happening in the lives of their classmates. It’s also difficult due to the pressure they put on themselves to look perfect, act perfect and be perfect. Kayla feels these pressures and wonders about her value.

2. They’re both never alone yet always alone.

In the movie, we see Kayla spending lots of time alone and feeling alone most of the time, even among other people—yet always connected with her phone to people she knows or wants to know better. This is one of the most significant shifts teens today feel compared to when we were teens. They feel lonely even when connected. Due to the constant connection (thanks to FOMO) they’re not sure how to enjoy time in solitude and silence. They crave the dopamine spikes that come with phone pings.

3. There are virtually no dramatic moments yet they feel lots of drama.

Like middle school students in any generation, life is relatively nondramatic, yet students feel so much drama during their day. Each interaction with a peer they don’t like, with a love interest they like or with an adult they don’t understand brings drama that far outweighs the reality in front of them. Parents don’t understand why they make such a big deal of everything, which leads to emotional interactions.

4. Teens want to be grown up yet not grow up at the same time.

Kayla endures an emotional swing set back and forth from wanting the rights of adulthood, (and the trust that comes with it), but yet not the demands of adulthood, like responsibility and commitment. This has likely been true for every generation of adolescents. They’re in an in-between life station—and the movie portrays this tension vividly, as we watch Kayla sitting on her bed wishing for both and neither.

5. Their life is both authentic and artificial.

I have said for years that teens today experience a lifestyle not unlike a “reality TV” show. It contains real people and real situations but so often feels scripted. Adults prescribe so many of their activities, preventing most real tragedies or catastrophes. As I mentioned earlier, “Eighth Grade” is a real and raw look at the life of a thirteen year-old female who uploads YouTube videos filled with her wisdom for peers, yet has an excruciating time following that wisdom herself: be yourself, don’t be nervous, stop being cynical and learn to be confident by acting confident.

My Recommendation

Kayla is a perfect, imperfect young teen with acne, crooked teeth and an insecurity about her weight. Which is why I recommend the movie to any parent, teacher, coach or leader of teens. The film is written and directed by former stand-up comedian Bo Burnham, who follows her as she experiences a precarious week before graduation. One critic called it “a true slice-of-life movie.” It’s rated R, but there aren’t any far-fetched or heightened stakes scenes; it’s just Kayla navigating parties and assemblies and class clowns. The film will enable you to lead your students with both empathy and insight.

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Five Paradoxes on Teens From the Eighth Grade