Yet Eighth Grade, like its cinematic big sister, Lady Bird, offers something quieter: Kayla doesn’t suddenly become accepted, or cool, or charismatic. Her “growth” is about what one would expect from an actual eighth grader, which is to say, she becomes mildly, mildly, more accepting of the person she is and will become. At the end of the film, the popular girls are still popular, the “cute” boy still lacks any discernible personality, and awkwardness doesn’t disappear so much as very, very gradually dissipate. Enduring eighth grade isn’t about becoming an adult; it’s about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel — and Eighth Grade is the first movie I’ve seen that effectively captures that fleeting yet essential piece of hope.
It may be immersion in writing as a field can obscure something else about the middle-school film as a genre and certain constraints it may have to deal with, though the observation that there seem to be few "great" films about the middle-school experience is probably true.
Mainstream cinematic culture is so saturated in a post-Joseph Campbell notion of the Hero's Journey and popular-level cinema is so swamped with films that are tasked with re-enchanting the world for the movie-going populous or re-enacting those moments considered substantial rites of passage or touchstones to coming of age that, well, middle-school films are hamstrung by the existence of age of consent constraints on what a "normal" set of rites of passage into adulthood (and by implication adult sexuality) is expected to be normative regardless of gender, sex, or orientation.
A middle-schooler narrative in film has to see light at the end of the tunnel but what, exactly, "is" that light supposed to be? Discovering one's sexual market value? Discovering that you can eventually find a way to pay for your own meals? Autonomy? Social connection? A middle school student never arrives, in legally recognizable terms, at any of the things that make for an identifiably adult protagonist in a cinematic narrative so the light at the end of the tunnel is the plausible option. The possibility that in seventh or eighth grade or whatever-is-formally-before-high-school you'll discover that whatever you're likely to become it won't be what you want is probably off the table.
To go by writings of a student debt crisis, stagnated unskilled labor, rumblings of wars and cyber-wars, and concerns about the legitimacy of the current regime "should" there be films in which middle schoolers are presented as discovering some proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. If adults are alternately horrified or elated by the current era is presenting, even by way of journalistic interpretation of a film, some light at the end of tunnel as the end-point or rebirth point for a middle schooler the only option on the table here?
When I think back on the "middle school years", the grades 7 and 8 where I grew up, it's not elementary school and it's not high school. You're too old to have childlike innocence in some stereotypical sense but you're not in high school. The in between aspect of the experience invites (bad puns, obviously) ruminations on what kind of society you will have no choice but to grow up into. I suppose it's an era in which you begin to discover what kind of social capital you have acquired and to what uses you may put it.
The idea that there's any light at the end of the tunnel reads like a bromide. When you're a low double-digit teenager you don't necessarily feel like there's light at the end of the tunnel. Depending on experience and relational contexts you begin to discover not so much light at the end of the tunnel but all of the ways in which the adults who have implicitly and explicitly been established as guides and role models begin to seem as if they are just muddling through, struggling and perhaps failing to be the "grown ups" that you're told you will one day be and it gives you time to consider whether you will "succeed" at whatever that is and have time to wonder about whether or not, even if you "could", whether or not you are sure you want to. Middle school age is not necessarily the era in which there's some light at the end of the tunnel as though the tunnel was without lights.
If anything the metaphor seems inverted. When you're a child and adults are around you who care for you the way forward is well-lit. The tunnel is just a tunnel and you can go forward or stay put but the path is confined. IF anything I sometimes think that the tunnel is into the darkness of adult life not darkness in the sense that it's all evil so much as that the further away from the social and civil protections of formal and physical childhood you get in "conventional" society the less light there is indicating where you "could" or "should" go. For people who have found they have high levels of social or emotional capital, perhaps, the light is at the end of the tunnel because they see all the possible things they can do with it. For kids who grew up without a ton of social or emotional capital cultivated in a social web of contacts the emerging end of the tunnel may not be full of light but darkness.
I was not exactly one of those kids who couldn't wait to be a "grown up". I didn't see grown up life as characterized by freedom. It seemed to be full of responsibilities and obligations, many of which the people in my life who I saw obliged to deal with obligations were simply not able to meet adequately. They tried but their best efforts were very often not enough. Some kept trying and others sort of shuffled on to other things.
If you're not some Chosen One hero the world you grow into is a world that largely has no particular use for you. Middle school years can be when you become old enough and observant enough to discover just how small you are in the world at a literal and metaphorical and social level.
I admit I don't remember my middle school years as being a particularly happy or stable time.
Sometimes it seems as though film has been taken up by journalists and scholars and historians and by film fans as rites of induction and initiation and passage. Representation requires that there be a film for a demographic rite of passage. I just have doubts lately about whether this is a good thing. I still watch movies and I still enjoy movies. It's just that in the last few years I have been considering complaints about the formulaic nature of blockbusters and yet the formulaic nature of art house films hardly seems less formulaic. there is a type of "realism" that isn't realism at all. When films like The Post seem less nuanced than superhero films I wonder whether or not having so cinema-saturated a culture traps us in scripts of cultural understanding we scarcely step back to consider.
Not that there weren't scripts and mythologies in literary culture. I just don't see the push for a post-canon society that I sometimes see as being possible. There's always going to be a canon and a set of cultural scripts.
To put it in a probably unfair way, Hollywood and even indie film present the world to Amerians or Westerners as one that is full of unlimited possibilities when the reality is you have to figure out what script you can follow given the constraints you were born into. The entertainment industry seems only able to think in terms of you either choose to be some normal conformist or you can be some dazzling art monster. Perhaps the most ostentatious variation of this cliché is embodied in the animated series Rick and Morty, one of the more hyped and over-hyped animated series of the last eight years. It's like if Futurama could use more swears and more sex humor. It may be the apotheosis of many of the weaker tendencies in Adult Swim anything. It probably warrants a separate post.