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But How Gay is ‘Eighth Grade’?

In “But How Gay Is It?”, we seek to answer the biggest questions you have about a new movie release in theaters now — including, most crucially, the titular question. Does the movie have any queer characters? Are there stories involving same-sex lovers? Which gay icons star in the film? We’re bringing you all that and more.

What is Eighth Grade? Do you want to revisit the social hell that was middle school? No? Don’t worry, director/writer Bo Burnham won’t make you feel too much retroactive embarrassment. His directorial debut is deft at putting you back in your feelings from your own eighth grade experience, but it holds your hand the whole time, ready to comfort you when it gets too much to bear. After all, the emotions may be the same, but this is hardly your own middle school.

Kayla, a wannabe vlogger who battles major social anxiety, is in the last week of her eighth grade year. She’s using the time to try and open up more, and finally find the friends she hasn’t had in middle school. Easier said than done, of course. But the promise of high school on the horizon gives her hope — and the journey she takes us on is equal parts nervewracking and heartwarming.

Who’s in it? Mostly unknowns, as can be expected for an indie like this, but you’ll likely at least recognize star Elsie Fisher’s voice: She portrayed Agnes in the first two Despicable Me movies. Josh Hamilton, who has an IMDb page a mile long, gets the kind of role career actors can only dream of as Kayla’s father, Mark. (His most notable recent role is as Clay Jensen’s father in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.) Transparent recurring performer Emily Robinson rounds out the notables as Olivia, a new friend of Kayla’s.

Why should I see it? Because it’s the best film of 2018. In my opinion, at least. There’s half a year to go, and there’s been plenty of great stuff in cinemas already: Black Panther, Annihilation, the instant classic Book Club. But Eighth Grade is something truly special. It did for me what Lady Bird did for so many others: touched me at my heart’s core with a story that is both relatable and emotionally evocative.

Middle school sucked for everyone. (That’s a generalization, but it’s also true.) That, in and of itself, is not a revelatory thesis. But Burnham digs so much deeper, taking every small anxiety or concern and making it feel seismic. The director/writer said in a video interview with Variety that he wanted Eighth Grade‘s emotional beats to match the larger-than-life nature of movies like Harry Potter and The Fault in Our Stars, which use fantastical and fatal consequences to make the story bigger. Eighth Grade makes the small feel seismic.

But how gay is it? It is and it isn’t. There are no gay characters, nor is there any gay content, so by house rules I gotta say no. But damn if I didn’t feel so much of my own experience as a gay boy in Kayla’s every awkward pause, and every hesitant movement. I’m not an anxious person by nature, but when I was trying so hard to find my place in a middle school landscape I didn’t fit into, every decision felt monumental. Trying to find spaces for myself was like trying to climb the highest cliffs. During one pool party scene, Kayla’s pounding heartbeat becomes the film’s score, and it immediately sent me back into the terror I felt at my own class pool parties.

So Eighth Grade isn’t gay, no, but if my own experience is any indication, gay people will find plenty in common with Kayla.

This was directed by Bo Burnham? The comedy musician from YouTube? Truly, I’m as shocked as you are. Fair or not, Burnham has always felt like a novelty to me, the kind of comedian who came up during a nascent era for YouTube on the kind of parodies that were hugely popular in the mid- to late-2000s. But Burnham has directed before: stand-up specials for himself, Jerrod Carmichael, and Chris Rock. Eighth Grade is his first feature, though, and is hugely promising. He deserves all the First Feature kudos he’ll get this awards season, and then some.

What’s the one thing I should know going in? To bring Kleenex for a pivotal monologue Mark delivers to Kayla in the film’s final act. Michael Stuhlbarg and Jennifer Garner have company in the Iconic Parent Monologue Club now.

Eighth Grade is in select theaters now.

Tags: Film
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