Middle School definitely sucks for many kids. It sucked for Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) in her excruciatingly awkward (but at the same time sweet and hopeful) journey from Middle School to High School in Bo Burnham’s film Eighth Grade. Maybe it sucked for you. We see the obvious reasons in vivid Technicolor: the insecurities, the struggles fitting in; the fears of rejection; the uncertainties about “who am I?”
It doesn’t help that there are mean kids and bullies to contend with. Yet, this isn’t the whole story. Teenage self-doubts have not so obvious roots in earlier childhood history. Not so sure? Hey, I’m a psychoanalyst, so hear me out …
Let’s start with the obvious:
6 reasons that Kayla’s last days in Middle School sucked. I’m sure many of you can relate. Maybe you’re in Middle School now. Or, maybe you’re older and still living with some of these same struggles.
6 Reasons Why Middle School Sucks
#1: It’s hard to be yourself
You want to be liked and you’re afraid you won’t be. It’s that you think people will make fun of you. Or worse, sometimes they actually do. Kayla says: “It sucks. Evil people exist.”
Well, maybe they aren’t really evil – but they loudly mirror a voice in your own head that constantly finds fault with you and won’t leave you alone.
What do you do?
You try to change yourself to be like the other kids because you really want to fit in. Or you withdraw, like Kayla because you don’t think you have a chance.
“Don’t care what other people think,” that’s Kayla’s advice. Easier said than done, right? Kayla can’t even do it herself. Because she does care and so do you. Of course, you do.
When it’s all too obvious that you feel like you don’t fit in (as much as you try to make yourself invisible); that really, really sucks.
#2: Kids keep asking “why are you so quiet?”
You want to open up. But you can’t, because you’re scared of rejection or saying the wrong thing or having kids just stare at you the way Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) stared at Kayla.
It hurts not to feel wanted or accepted. To feel you’re not doing it right or aren’t good enough no matter how hard you try.
If you’re like Kayla, voted “Most Quiet,” you probably aren’t so quiet, really.
Or, at least you wouldn’t be under the right circumstances. You know – if you really felt people liked you and wanted to hear what you had to do say.
#3: Kids really are mean sometimes
Kayla’s dad (Josh Hamilton) says something very wise to help her understand why kids are sometimes mean: “Kids have their own stuff going on.”
It’s true, but it still feels awful to be treated so cruelly. Hard to believe it’s not about you – even though it really isn’t personal at all. You just don’t know that yet.
Middle School is a time when a lot of kids haven’t learned how to put themselves in other people’s shoes. We call it empathy, right? When they don’t have empathy yet, that makes them self-absorbed and insensitive.
Kennedy’s “right in your face” snobbishness really, really hurt. Kayla knew Kennedy didn’t like her.
But, she didn’t understand that Kennedy had her own insecurities. Maybe she was hurting too and this was her mean girl way of covering it up.
I know that’s probably hard for you to believe, but it’s true.
Kennedy looks “too cool” – but for lots of kids, that‘s just a façade. She had to reject anything (in other words, Kayla) that reminded her of how she feels. Kennedy had to do it to tell herself: “That’s not me.”
It took a lot of courage for Kayla to go to Kennedy’s pool party. And, because she had to push herself so hard, Kennedy’s look of disgust at Kayla’s birthday gift was the icing on the cake. It was just too much.
#4: You feel like crawling in a hole … a lot
Not only kids’ meanness – all kinds of things make you feel awkward. Maybe you don’t think you look good enough. A critical voice goes off in your head, telling you all the things that are wrong.
Maybe your skin is breaking out. Or you aren’t as skinny as some of the other girls. It’s hard to be brave when that voice inside puts you down.
Everyone everywhere becomes that voice. It makes you convinced everyone will reject you. That makes you just want to run away in shame. And, sometimes you do.
#5: It seems like there’s no one on your side
Kayla’s dad tells her how cool she is. Yeah, that’s great and all. It always helps to have a supportive Dad. But rejection is rejection. Your dad is your dad.
It’s what the other kids think that matters. Some day you’ll learn to choose the ones who deserve you, but now it’s hard.
You pray for a good day. Bargain with God … just like Kayla did before Shadow Day at the High School. You need something to go your way, something good – just this once.
Yes, you need someone who knows how you feel. For Kayla, that was Olivia (Emily Robinson), her Senior Shadow guide.
Olivia “gets” her. It’s really cool that Olivia likes her. She’s encouraging and wants to help. But, Olivia’s also too young to realize that Kayla needs protecting from her friend Riley (Daniel Zolgahdri), who offers to drive Kayla home.
Kayla wants him to like her too. When he stops on a dark street and gets into the back seat, challenging her to play “Truth or Dare,” she’s stuck.
#6: You do things you don’t really want to do, just to be liked
Maybe you’re like Kayla. You feel like you can’t say, “No” even if something doesn’t feel right to you. You’re scared of what might happen if you do.
You want so much to fit in. It’s really hard listening to that all-too-quiet voice inside that tells you, “You don’t like this.”
It’s your need to be liked that confuses you.
Riley was Olivia’s friend, so he must be ok. Right? And, he said he was trying to teach her things so she could protect herself from other boys. It’s to help her, as he says. Right? Wrong.
Finally, Kayla says “No.” But, she’s really upset and she’s too scared to tell her Dad. She fights him off when he tries to help. Kayla has no one to talk to. She has no mom.
Then something important happens. It’s a real turning point for Kayla. She admits to her Video viewers (and finally to herself) that she’s “nervous all the time and never feels any better.”
She’s had to fight off her nervousness for a long time. The big question is: where and when did that nervousness start?
Let’s talk about the not so obvious:
A Difficult History Doesn’t Help
Kayla’s mom left her when she was a baby. That’s a big loss. And, her mom is nowhere in the picture now.
She says a very sad and revealing thing to her dad: “If I had a daughter and she was like me, it would make me really sad.”
You know where that comes from? From her belief that she wasn’t the baby her mom wanted.
She probably believes (deep down inside) she wasn’t good enough and that’s why her mom left. This loss seeps into her fears of rejection at school and into her self-image.
Her dad does the right thing. He tells her she’s wrong. Tells her how lucky he is. But, he also tells her something else. He wasn’t sure she’d be ok when her mom left. And, he was scared.
Kayla’s dad is a good dad, but he wasn’t sure he could raise a little girl alone. He’s been nervous for a long time too.
Now, he tells her how he’s always been proud: “I just watched you. You did all that.” She “just grew up on her own.”
Even though it wasn’t true, this is the message she got. Kayla must have felt, from the time she was very small – that she had to be big and figure things out for herself.
We see it in her Video’s; in the way she gives advice to others, in how she’s had to cover up her fears.
Kayla’s dad gives her a big gift when he admits his fear. He helps her come out of hiding and admit hers.
As they sit together and burn her old “hopes and dreams” (so she can make way for new ones), we see the little girl she’s had to hide. She sits on her dad’s lap and lets him comfort her. She doesn’t have to be so big anymore.
Kayla can be scared. But, she can also be strong.
She stands up to the bullies. Tells Kennedy and Steph (Nora Mullins) off before she goes onto the stage to graduate from Middle School.
Having your real feelings and standing up for your self can set you free.
Especially when you’re also standing up to that bully in your head, who spouts all those awful feelings about yourself you’ve had since you were little.
Best of all, Kayla makes a real friend in Gabe (Jake Ryan). He sees her for who she really is: he thinks she’s awesome. She is. She just has to know that for herself. And, so do you.
It takes some kids (and even some adults) time to grow into who you are and to (Yes!) learn to like you for you.
If you haven’t found your group (or your courage) yet, keep trying. Remember what Kayla says: “Middle School sucked for me, but I’m moving past that now and you can do that too. Things are fun and scary, but it’s ok.”
Things won’t always be this way. Don’t give up. Don’t forget Kayla’s words. And know this too:
If you’re having too much trouble doing it on your own, there are people like me to talk to and get some extra help. You don’t have to do it all alone.