The scene that encapsulates this crisis in ‘Eighth Grade’ is when thirteen-year-old Kayla stands on the brink of Kennedy’s birthday pool party. The camera holds behind Kayla: quiet, invisible and exposed in her one-piece swimming suit, hands crossed over her stomach to hold in the butterflies as she looks through the patio doors and takes a moment to compose herself. As a fledgling vlogger in the self-help confessional mode (‘You just need to face your fears’, etc.), here marks the moment when she must get down off her soapbox and live by her own advice — this is underscored by the mise-en-scène with outsider Kayla high up on the patio, as if holed up in a tower, while down below pubescent pool carnage reigns supreme. The camera swoops through the scene, with the delicious excess of slo-mo and EDM, like Harmony Korine’s ‘Spring Breakers’ — the PG 13 cut — taking in neon swimsuits, train track braces instead of grillz, Super Soakers instead of guns, and fizzy pop instead of booze. Up here you’re all alone and it’s all your fault; over there, people are living life to the fullest. But you could have that, too. This is your chance to make a splash. If only you could- Take a deep breath.
You see, Kayla is on another threshold: ‘Eighth Grade’ follows her during the final week of middle school, as she prepares for the gigantic leap to high school. This new school promises another chance for her to grow, a clean slate from which she can establish herself as the outgoing, confident person she wants to be, rather than the awkward and shy girl that her middle school has cast her as — literally voting her ‘Most Quiet’, in the end of school Superlative awards. Indeed, superlatives are often a guiding force when it comes to the conflicts affecting teenagers in films — see: Oh My God, The Most Beautiful Boy I Have Ever Seen Ever, or The Coolest, Most Life-Ruiningly Popular Girl in School — and while Kayla does long for a boyfriend, and to belong to a clique, what she really wants is far more existential: to become the person she’s promised herself to be. So, she sets about becoming the version of Kayla that she prosthelytises about on YouTube, in videos such as Be Yourself and Put Yourself Out There for an audience of next-to-no-one. The first step to being more outgoing and confident is to attend that pool party: if you can just persevere through a panic attack in the bathroom, you can find the strength to walk through those patio doors, no matter how vulnerable you feel.