by Francesca Hughes | December 13, 2020
Many teen films either depict fathers as absent, unfaithful, or grieving widowers struggling to parent. This trope felt alien to me as a girl raised by a divorced single dad. My experience was much more similar to Kayla’s in Eighth Grade (2018).
The film follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she navigates her last year of middle school, growing up online, puberty and struggling to fit in with her peers such as the popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliver). My dad was my rock throughout my adolescence, even if embarrassing at times. He was often the only dad in a room full of mums, as Kennedy’s mum implies when she talks about Kayla’s dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) “being a huge help with the spring fundraiser.”
Unlike Kayla, my mum didn’t leave me. When I was eleven I had to leave her due to alcoholism, emotional abuse, and neglect. My dad’s fifty percent custody was altered to full custody and I started living with him full-time. Although this necessary change made me feel loved and safer, it came in the same year I hit puberty. Usually those who have periods have a mother’s guidance to help get them through it. Luckily my dad has five sisters, and they went to bra fittings with me, while he gave me puberty books and bought period products.
I watched the trailer for Eighth Grade after noticing the buzz around it. The trailer primarily focuses on growing up in the social media age shown through the glimpses of Kayla’s YouTube videos and Instagram scrolling. As someone that has also grown up using social media I was intrigued and had not seen coming-of-age films explore the impact of it yet, so I decided to go watch it at the cinema. Although I appreciated the realistic portrayal of social media, it was the dynamic between Kayla and her dad Mark that has stayed with me. Especially as I watched it in the cinema with my own dad.
Early on in the film Kayla is sitting at the dinner table scrolling on her phone, ignoring her dad after a tough day at school and drowning out her problems with music. He asks her to take out her earphones, pretends to cry, and asks Kayla to listen to him, as she rolls her eyes. Mark then begins to ramble advice at her — an interaction similar to conversations with my dad when I was around her age. Mark tells Kayla, “I think you’re cool and you just need to put yourself out there a bit more…you’re a really special person and I know it’s like all dads think that. Even if I wasn’t your dad I’d still think that.” He preempts Kayla’s reaction with, “Yeah duh shut up, Dad,” an almost identical way to what my dad says when he thinks he is irritating me, which always makes me laugh. In the cinema, I saw my dad smile at me in the dark, as we both thought back to moments like that. When I was fourteen, not much older than Kayla my dad had surgery for stage two bowel cancer and was in hospital for ten days. Thankfully he is in remission. My aunt looked after me, but the house felt oddly quiet without his dad jokes and dances in the kitchen. When he returned I didn’t roll my eyes at his jokes, I was just pleased they were filling the house again. It wasn’t the same over video call and the familiarity was comforting in such a difficult time. Although Kayla is annoyed by Mark’s jokes, they offer her a safe place to land and that is special.
As a wheelchair user it can be hard to use public transport. My dad often takes me to shopping centres to go hang out with friends and shop. The scene where Mark is observing Kayla’s conversation with her new, older friends in the food hall made me laugh, as my dad often sticks around and goes to do his own shopping — meeting with us later when it’s time to go home, the drive is not worth it. However, there have been a few times where we’ve accidentally bumped into him, while chatting about boys, flushed with awkward embarrassment. The glare that Kayla gives Mark as she walks over to him and wills him away is a perfect depiction of a teenager being embarrassed by a parent, when they are just striving to fit in. Mark’s fatherly concern for both Kayla’s happiness and safety as he watches from a distance feels familiar and I am sure most parents naturally feel nervous when they see their children entering a new chapter of life with new people. Unfortunately later in the film Mark’s worry for Kayla becomes a reality, as Riley, a high school senior, attempts to coerce her into unwanted and underage sex.
Sometimes, like Kayla, I felt like I’d be disappointed with a daughter like me — I had been wrestling with my own low self-esteem and was going through a lot of bullying.Thankfully my dad helped me through it. My early teen years did not live up to the expectations my younger self had imagined from watching High School Musical, which often made me feel like a failure. Like Mark, my dad always encouraged me to put myself out there to combat my shyness. In one of her YouTube videos, Kayla talks about how you have to make yourself confident, until you truly feel it. My dad took the steps to improving my confidence by signing me up to a weekend drama class, so I would start to feel less self conscious when interacting with others. Before I felt like Kayla: avoiding eye contact and looking down in the hallway. Slowly I became self assured and confronted meanness. As Kayla did when confronting Kennedy in the final sequence. When Kayla asks her dad, “Do I make you sad?” it may seem overdramatic, but I also felt like this. The neglect and bullying had made me introspective. I sometimes felt like my sadness drained happiness from others. I was not going to parties like I pictured, but instead like Kayla was scrolling through Instagram watching others live the ideal teen life. When Mark says, “Being your dad makes me so so happy, it’s so easy to love you,” Kayla begins to see herself as worthy. Here director and screenwriter, Bo Burnham, highlights how hearing words of unconditional love makes such a difference when you are being made to feel worthless.
When I was younger I envied more traditional family dynamics, but now I’m grateful for our close bond. Families come in all shapes and what matters is having a parental figure that is there for you when you need them most. I left the screening crying and thankful that, like Kayla, I had someone that made me feel loved when I felt most alone. Burnham showed both of us our dynamic on screen for the first time and that matters. Not only to families like ours, but to wider society in creating visibility around single dads and challenging the wrongful assumption that men cannot raise children, especially girls alone. Dads can give the important love and emotional support any teenager could want or need.