You are working harder than you have ever worked in your life; your heart is pounding, your body aches, you are struggling to breathe, you are drowning. If you go under one more time, you fear you may fail to reach the surface again. There is hope. People are nearby and are able to reach out and save you, the only problem is they don’t notice you. Your first thought is to do anything that would get their attention. You holler, scream, and splash water, but your attempts to get them to notice you are falling on deaf ears.
This is the situation that Kayla, the protagonist of Eighth Grade finds herself in. Just trade drowning in the water with being in middle school.
Kayla makes a list of the things she thinks will “save” her: confidence, friends, a best friend, and a boyfriend. She even details the steps she believes it will take to acquire each of these things. The only thing wrong with her list – from our perspective as Christians – is that even if Kayla acquired all four, she would still be drowning and looking for hope, because our only hope is that Jesus Christ showed his unconditional love for us when He paid the price for our sin. But Eighth Grade is not a movie about the gospel (or maybe it is); it is a movie about the awkwardness of middle school.
The director, Bo Burnham, takes the viewer through some painfully awkward moments that you may have lived yourself or that your middle schoolers are currently going through. In fact, painfully awkward is a great way to describe this movie. There are scenes where the awkwardness is so heavy you are biting your nails trying to relieve the pressure. You can’t help but be reminded of middle school as you watch Kayla doing whatever it takes to gain confidence, friends, a best friend, and a boyfriend.
You feel Kayla’s anxiety as she is getting ready in a bathroom, working up the confidence to go and join a pool party. What makes matters more intense is that this party is at the home of Kennedy, a popular girl who’s mom made her daughter invite Kayla.
The pool scene has everything one would expect from middle school – boys chugging Kool-Aid and shooting water at one another, girls too cool to get wet, and lots of flirting. Kayla eventually jumps in the water to hopefully get noticed. She is noticed by Gabe, Kennedy’s dorky cousin, who doesn’t try to hide his dorkiness at all. Before pleading with her dad to come and pick her up early, she tries once more to manifest confidence, and sings karaoke in front of the group.
Seeking out friends is utterly painful to watch, and if you were in Kayla’s shoes in middle school this movie will be all too familiar. In an attempt to say thank you to Kennedy for inviting her to the party, she gives her a note. Kennedy and her friend are both nose deep in their phones at the time and could care less about Kayla standing in front of them. As Kayla says “hi” to Kennedy’s friends, all this sister of satan—umm, mean girl—can muster is a long drawn out “hiii?”
During a terrorism drill at school Kayla learns that Aiden, a boy whom she was caught staring at, broke up with a girl because she would not send nudes. When Kayla wrote her list of things she thought she wanted, next to boyfriend she put “be sexy” as an action step. Apparently “be sexy,” to an eighth grader, entails sharing a nude photo of yourself or, in Kayla’s case, pretending like you have some. When Aiden’s curiosity is peaked he asks if Kayla gives blowjobs (yikes!) to which she lies and says she is really good at them. She later goes home to research on YouTube before she thankfully becomes grossed out.
Bo Burnham either intentionally or unintentionally shares the gospel as Kayla and her dad sit talking in their backyard around a fire. Kayla asks her dad, “Do I make you sad?” This little girl is drowning. She has tried to get other people’s attention to no avail, and she wonders if it might be the same with her dad. He responds with the best line in the movie, “If only you could see you the way I see you!”
Kayla – like many of our students – is empty and broken, much like the woman at the well in John chapter 4 who has had five husbands and is maybe working on number six. Jesus says to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Jesus is offering this woman life in Him. He knows that this woman will have to return day after day for water in order to live, but as far as her value, worth, sin, and eternal security go, that can be forever satisfied in Jesus. If teens seek to fulfill their hope in anything other than Jesus, they will remain empty and thirsty. Both the Samaritan woman and Kayla find out that things in this world which seem like they can give hope or rescue never actually satisfy or provide what we are looking for.
In the chaos of life, our kids need to know that we love them no matter what and that they don’t need to earn our love. The teens in our ministry need to know that God loves them indefinitely and they don’t need to perform (holler, scream, or splash water) to get His attention. Maybe you, too, need to be reminded, “If you could only see you the way I see you!”