Breaking Down the Most Brilliant Scene in 'Eighth Grade'
My pick for best movie of the year so far, Eighth Grade, has finally been released for home viewing and this means people who are better at the internet than me will start posting scenes to YouTube. Since I saw the movie there has been one scene that stood out to me among a movie basically filled with terrific scenes.
That would be the scene featuring Kayla and her father in the backyard, involving a discussion about sadness, fear and the burning of a self-effigy. While we will be getting into minor spoiler territory, this will in no way ruin the movie if you have not seen it, but I highly recommend that you do.
If you have not seen the movie, read any of my articles about it, or you need a refresher. Eighth Grade centers around Kayla, a soon to be high school student navigating her last week of childhood. Kayla has spent the movie, up until this point, believing that she was ready and prepared, but more importantly, needed to make to the jump to adult-hood.
Above I have linked part one of the scene. I now think it is the best time to let you know that we will be getting into some story structure nerd talk, but bear with me, it will make the overall scope of this scene mean that much more.
I have enlisted the help of Dan Harmon's story circle to help easily visualize Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. The building blocks of all storytelling.
Right now we are in the middle of part 6. Pay a price. The scene begins with Kayla at her lowest point in the movie. She has so desperately wanted to prove that she is ready to take the leap into adulthood and the previous scene has shown her that maybe adulthood is not exactly what she expected or wanted.
She throws her "hopes and dreams" off the proverbial cliff and into a literal fire. She has given up completely and then asks her Dad the question she has been desperately trying to change the answer to all movie, "Do I make you sad?"
Let's jump away from structure and dive into the character of Kayla. When asked why she would ask such a question Kayla responds with "If I had a daughter that turned out like me, being her mom would make me really sad".
This is such a telling line from Kayla, and one that encapsulates her character so well. It sums up all of Kayla's greatest struggles so far in the movie. Not that she can't get boys to like her or get invited to parties, but her unrelenting need to rush past this part of her life, only thinking of how she negatively effects people and worrying about things that 13 year olds should not have to worry about for a long long time.
All of these things are the reasons for Kayla's anxiety about life and where it will lead. She is constantly fighting a battle with herself that is impossible to win and now that she has found that the one thing that she thought would change everything, may only lead to life getting more difficult, has broken her. The light at the end of the tunnel has become the beginning of an even longer and more arduous one.
Now let's shift over to Dad. He, like Kayla, has been fighting a losing battle. He has tried valiantly to connect with his daughter, who he can see is struggling but can't figure out how to get through to. When he tries to give her space she just seems to drift further away and when he takes a more pro-active approach that blows up in his face even worse.
He begins his half of the conversation, again valiantly, trying to assure his daughter that she in fact makes him incredibly happy. His words fall on deaf ears though, Kayla has heard the rhetoric a thousand times and is not buying it.
That brings us to part two, where now Dad realizes that the crock he is feeding her is not getting through. Then he does what he has been asking Kayla to do all this time but wont do himself, open up and be honest. He tells her "When Mom left I was really scared" and Burnham cuts to Kayla looking up from her thousand yard stare at the ground and sort of gulps. She knows things are about to get real.
Then Dad goes into a monologue that I would not dare paraphrase. I can't remember a speech in a movie that felt like a more honest and sincere description of parenthood, and by the end Dad is not longer talking just to Kayla, he is speaking to all of us.
About halfway through this beauty of a monologue, Kayla starts to crack a smile. Not because Dad is saying all these great things about her but because he is finally treating her like an adult. Hes not trying to fix everything for her or make all the problems go away, he has let himself become vulnerable and showing her the Mark side of him, not just the Dad side.
It is in this moment that they both learn the same lesson from each other. Being an adult is about accepting that you wont have the answers to everything and life's greatest joys can come from your darkest fears.
The scene ends with father and daughter embracing, heading into the third act returning to comfort, having learned.