It’s a universal law that everyone hated Eighth Grade. Ask nearly anyone how their middle school (or, in my case “jr. high”) experience was and you’ll hear the same phrase: Awkward. So it’s not terribly surprising that the debut film from comedian-turned-writer/director Bo Burnham, which is called Eighth Grade, is really, really awkward. What is surprising is how sweet and hopeful the story of Kayla Day (a pitch-perfect Elsie Fisher) is. Burnham uses awkwardness to its best effect, creating a space for both empathy and transformation.
Why, exactly, is middle school so awkward? Better yet, what, exactly, is awkwardness? In her book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, journalist Melissa Dahl identifies moments that make us cringe as “moments in which you risk revealing too much of yourself.” She goes on to define awkwardness as:
An unpleasant kind of self-recognition where you suddenly see yourself through someone else’s eyes. It’s a forced moment of self-awareness, and it usually makes you cognizant of the disappointing fact that you aren’t measuring up to your own self-concept.
From the first moment of the film, we see Kayla as she wishes to be. She addresses her audience of YouTube viewers – who number, we learn, in the single-digits, offering life tips on things like self-confidence and putting yourself out there. We follow Kayla, the camera nearly always with her head in focus, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. The score frequently swells to drown out all other sound, inviting us into Kayla’s interior soundscape.
Because Burnham insists on keeping us so immersed in Kayla’s perspective, we have a front-row seat to how awkward her life is. It’s clear immediately that her YouTube personality is who she wants to be – in the first episode, she insists she’s not quiet, but she wins the “Most Quiet” superlative the next day at school. She practices small talk and works up the courage to sing karaoke in front of popular kids, but none of this makes a difference in how she feels about herself. And we feel every awkward moment.
Dahl insists these cringeworthy moments are good – or at least that they can be.
It’s so hard to look at yourself from someone else’s point of view when it means taking in the ways you’re not measuring up to your own sense of self. But if you can stand it, seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes can help you move a little closer toward becoming the person you wish you were.
Again and again, Kayla puts herself out there. Again and again, the cute boy and the popular girls ignore her. Finally, Kayla listens to a message she recorded for herself in sixth grade, at the beginning of middle school. The optimism of her younger self proves too much for Kayla, who asks her father to help her burn the middle school time capsule in the backyard. When her father asks what the box contains, Kayla replies,
Nothing much. Just my hopes and dreams.
In this quiet moment, Kayla comes face to face with her awkwardness. She asks her dad if she makes him sad. In the face of his confusion, she confesses that if she had a daughter who were like her, she’d be really sad. This is the heart of awkwardness: Kayla has tried everything to be likeable and she feels like a failure. She imagines standing outside of herself, seeing herself through someone else’s eyes and can see only a failure, a disappointment, a pitiable, pathetic child.
The next moment is a sacrament. Her father, now understanding his daughter’s plight, embraces her and corrects her in the gentlest terms. He praises the qualities in her he admires and then insists,
If you could see you the way I see you, the way you really are, you’d never be afraid.
This is Love’s gaze: Love sees us truly and fully, in all our awkward glory. Our true self is the image of God in us, the one Colossians tells us is “hidden with Christ in God.” This is why Scripture calls us to meditate. Isaiah promises, “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” The Psalmist insists, “My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.” In meditating, we sit in the light of God’s loving gaze and allow ourselves to be seen, truly and wholly by our creator and savior. Allowing ourselves to be seen is salvific.
Middle school is awkward in large part because we are just beginning to become our own persons, to discover who we are, and what it means for us to bear God’s image in the world. As Dahl observes, “You carry your teen self around with you for life in part because these are the years you become yourself in the first place.” When we put ourselves out there, it gets awkward, because we have to deal with the gap between how we see ourselves, how we want to be and how other people see us.
Middle school is only the beginning. We spend the rest of our lives navigating how we be ourselves in the world. But this can be a precious gift, especially when we choose to surround ourselves with people like Kayla’s dad who choose to look for the image of God in us, people who choose to name the good and beautiful and true in us.
When we allow ourselves to be loved like this, we are able to be who we were created to be. And when we love others like this, we create space for them to be who they were created to be. Our churches should be safe spaces to be awkward. We should be a group of people who embraces the awkward because people are free to be who they are, that they may be seen by the loving gazes of God and God’s people that they might each day become somewhat more the person they were created to be.
On the last day of eighth grade, empowered by the true-seeing love of her father, Kayla speaks truth. She confronts the girls who want nothing to do with her. She begins a real friendship across a thoughtfully prepared meal of chicken nuggets. And she offers some optimistic words to future self, to be sealed up and opened at her high school graduation.
We know high school won’t be much easier for Kayla. We know life won’t be sunshine and roses from here – though it does get better. But thanks to the gift of awkwardness and the unconditional love of her father, we leave the film knowing that, through it all, Kayla is going to be just fine.