Lessons from ‘Eighth Grade’ image

Lessons from ‘Eighth Grade’

I’ve recently seen a lot of references to university students as “millennials.” Conferences, news articles, podcasts, all claiming to want to reach students and referring to them as millennials. As one of the student leaders at my local church, it makes me want to start wearing a T-shirt saying “Millennials are all working adults now.” The students in your universities and churches are now Generation Z, born from around 1996 onwards. They grew up differently to me (a quintessential millennial in that I remember 9/11 but not the Berlin Wall and I’m big on brunch) and their generation’s traits are, as a result, also very different. They were born in a different era and rarely have I seen that era so acutely understood or represented as in the film Eighth Grade.

Eighth Grade, as the name suggests, is about an American teenager, Kayla, in her final week of middle school (aged 13, for fellow Brits) and looking forward to a new school and, perhaps, a new her. She’s shy, socially awkward and unable to connect with her peers, who she sees as more attractive and more confident. For anyone else who was an awkward 13-year-old, the film should probably come with a warning for traumatic flashbacks. We get a glimpse of one week in the life of a modern teenager and, well… good luck parents.

Director Bo Burnham (initially famous for YouTube videos and vines) has made an auspicious debut feature, dragging us into the world of the modern teen and showing us an unfiltered look at their lives and longings. It’s painfully funny, eking laughs from the excruciating sight of a teacher dabbing to a sincere Dad who always walks in at the most awkward moments. It should put to rest the snobby British attitude that we’re the only ones who do sophisticated cringe comedy. Beautiful close-ups, tactical use of slo-mo and a score that sometimes sounds like a horror film all make the rhythms of Kayla’s everyday life seem inherently cinematic.

This is very much a film about now and every beat feels real. From the slang-peppered dialogue to the omnipresence of phones, Burnham clearly understands the people he’s depicting. This isn’t, however, some boomer’s rallying cry against social media; it’s simply a human story set in a world where you can’t avoid it. Burnham displays the one trait I value above all others in a director: empathy. He clearly cares about the characters in his story, when it would be all too easy to judge or dismiss the next generation.

Elsie Fisher, a relative newcomer in the role of Kayla, is the key that unlocks this empathy. The film hangs on her performance, often lingering on her face as the dialogue or action happens off-screen. It’s all about how she reacts to it, her forced smiles and shifting eyes conveying a wealth of emotion. The audience immediately invests in this confused, scared, determined young girl; my friend texted me after seeing it saying she just wanted to tell her that it would all be OK.

Even though Burnham doesn’t judge his young cast of characters, he still paints a stark picture of the challenges of growing up today – one that any youth worker, student leader or parent would do well to pay attention to. Students at university today started secondary school in 2011, by which point social media and smartphones had already entrenched themselves in society. There’s real insight here into the role that technology plays in the lives of Gen Z – perhaps borne from Burnham’s own online fame.

Kayla slips between different personalities with an ease afforded by the digital era. She projects herself as a confident, wise person on her YouTube page that nobody watches, then shrinks into herself the moment she enters the school corridors. I remember Christian camps when I was kid telling us not to be a different person at school than we were at church on Sundays. Today the challenge for everyone, not just Gen Z, is negotiating the multiplicity of lives on offer to us. The problem, however, is more pressing for the youngest generation, because the world of Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube – all inherently curated, controlled and visual media – is all they’ve ever known.

I’m not (and nor is Burnham) encouraging panic about “youth these days.” But awareness of what it’s like to be a teenager in the ’10s is essential if we’re going to contextualise faith and godly living to them. Kayla is exposed to violence (she trains for how to respond to a school shooting) and sex, adult ideas that she should be shielded from; the teenage boys in her life are sexually aware and demanding it from the girls they know. There’s also the anxiety she feels, which to me feels like one of the defining traits of Gen Z. Unless we know how to speak into these traits without coming across as the awkward dabbing teacher, only half understanding the culture he’s trying to reach, then we risk losing them.

Eighth Grade is an excellent place to start. Its empathetic voice is one that gives us an on-the-ground view of Gen Z life, making it perhaps the first great film that is truly of this generation. Watch it anyway, as it’s one of the best films of the year so far, but watch it with an eye to understand the future of the country and of the church. It’s no good to keep grumbling about millennial culture or strategising to reach millennials – that ship has sailed. The focus now should be on the youth and the university students of a tech-savvy, short attention-spanned, high-anxiety, deeply passionate generation who are growing up in a world where they’re told to form their own identity but given no framework in which to do that.

Fascinatingly, Kayla openly admits to believing in God and she prays at one point – a prayer that is mercifully answered. It’s fascinating, to me, that amidst all of the confusion and the anxiety that is adolescence, prayer marks the turning point for Kayla. Another facet of Generation Z identified by polls and writers is an increased openness to spirituality. Time to pray.

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