Despite not featuring superheroes, dinosaurs, or Tom Cruise, Eighth Grade has managed to become the surprise hit of the summer movie season thanks to its unique ability to give an honest look at the painful self-awareness that comes with adolescence. The film — directed by comedian Bo Burnham — focuses on Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a kind but shy eighth grader who, despite her best efforts, struggles to find her place in the incredibly difficult world of junior high. Along the way, Kayla crosses paths with friends, foes, potential lovers, and everyone in between but the one constant presence in her life is her dad Mark (Josh Hamilton), who proves to be one of the most accurate onscreen portrayals of fatherhood in the 21st Century. Here’s why you shouldn’t miss it.
From the moment Mark is on screen, it’s easy to see exactly who he is: an overly supportive, slightly dorky, but ultimately lovable single dad who has no idea how to get his daughter to look up from her phone long enough to hold anything close to a real conversation. Mark tries his best to find a space to exist in his daughter’s world but his penchant for goofy jokes and sincere words of affirmation tend to fall flat with Kayla. As he is driving her to a birthday party she has no desire to go to, he tries to chat with Kayla about what is going on in her life but she defiantly keeps her headphones in her ears to let her dad know she’s not looking to chat.
So how exactly is this corny dude in his late 40s such a powerful portrayal of positive parenting? Because far more than his cheesy jokes or well-intentioned pep talks, Mark’s greatest strength as a dad is his patience. Even as Kayla openly rolls her eyes at his attempts to have a two-minute conversation at the dinner table, Mark never lets this rejection stop him from letting his daughter know how much he means to him. Mark’s love for Kayla is so genuine and so deep that he never even considers giving up; he is a dad and a dad’s job is to be there for his kids, even when all they want is to be as far away from you as possible.
For most of the movie, it seems like this support has gone entirely unnoticed by Kayla, as Mark awkwardly tries to show his daughter that, to him, she really is the most amazing and coolest person in the world. And thanks to some phenomenal acting from Hamilton, the viewer can tell that Mark really means every word he is saying. But every parent knows that no matter how much they wish they could show their kid how special they really are, there is nothing that can convince a self-conscious kid (especially a pre-teen) less than the praise of their mom or dad.
Despite facing constant rejection from the one person he desperately wants to connect with, Mark remains a sympathetic presence in Kayla’s life, even as she seems ready to keep her dad at arms distance for the next several years. Because unlike so many other relationships in life, parents are committed to being there for their kids, even when that same kid barely acknowledges their existence. And while Kayla might want to pretend like she has outgrown her old man, in the final third of the film, her dad’s unceasing selflessness proves to be exactly what she needs, as she unloads all of the insecurity and doubt she has been harboring inside thanks to the confusing and often frustrating world around her.
Unsurprisingly, Mark is more than up to the task. Without a second of hesitation, Mark jumps into action and assures his daughter that what she is feeling is totally normal and finally, his words of encouragement don’t fall on deaf ears. It’s no different than what he has been telling his daughter since the very beginning of the film but Kayla is finally ready to hear it. Like any good parent, Mark isn’t just there for the big moments in his daughter’s life to give a grandiose speech. He’s there for her in the mundane moments as well and so, when she finally needs him, he has earned that trust and is able to provide her a moment of respite from the cruel and unforgiving world where she feels nothing but isolation and rejection.
It may sound like Mark is literally the LeBron James of dads but the movie also makes the wise decision to highlight his failures as a parent as well as his triumphs. Eighth Grade makes it clear that as much as Mark may love his daughter, he’s far from a perfect dad. At times, Mark’s devotion to his daughter can cross into the territory of helicopter parenting, like when he is caught spying on his daughter while she is hanging out with some high school friends at the mall. It’s a painful moment to watch but exposing these flaws makes Mark feel like a real person instead of an impossibly perfect character.
In the past, movies typically delighted in showing dads to be either ruthless disciplinarians incapable of feelings or bumbling buffoons who were too busy being total fucking idiots to help their kids in any meaningful way. But in the past few years, films like Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon have given dedicated dads their due. And now, Eighth Grade takes the role of the caring patriarch to a new level of powerful realism, as Mark’s never-ending battle to connect with his daughter is an experience that all parents will relate to. And hopefully, seeing Mark breakthrough to Kayla will remind parents that while being a parent is an often unforgiving experience, with the right amount of patience, it can also prove to be the most rewarding thing you will ever do.
Eight Grade is currently playing in a limited theatrical release. Here’s a list from AMC, though it is likely playing in local indie theaters in your town, too.