Although neither film drew the attention of Oscar voters, the films Eighth Grade and Leave No Trace were among the best-reviewed films of the last year. (Rotten Tomatoes has them at 99-100% fresh.) They make for an interesting and instructive pairing. With solid scripts and captivating performances by their female leads, the films feature teen girls, existing at opposite poles of contemporary civilized life, one in a mainstream high school and the other living in a public park with her father, an Iraq War veteran who suffers from PTSD.
One might expect that the most socially acclimated, most academically successful, and most psychologically mature of the young women would be the one existing in mainstream culture. Yet the opposite is the case—providing a dramatic illustration of the way a version of homeschooling, even in the most unlikely of settings, can be preferable to certain intellectually vacuous, morally repellant, and anxiety-inducing forms of public education.
Eighth Grade, the first feature film from director Bo Burnham, stars Elise Fisher as Kayla, a young woman finishing up 8th grade in a nondescript middle school in New York. Kayla's life is dominated by the superficial social concerns of American middle schoolers. What makes the film both difficult and brilliant is that Kayla's inner life is nearly non-existent. That makes emotional identification with her character problematic for viewers. But, as the story unfolds, the dull shallowness of her character reveals the sort of soul that such a social-educational system produces. There is nothing in either the academic content or the community that inspires anything more than the banal, yet desperate, desire to communicate a self to others. In fact, in its depiction of the way natural, erotic desire is twisted into a set of calculative imperatives for various sex acts, it reveals a deeply disturbing darkness at the heart of even consensual sexual relations.
Yet, the film manages to make Kayla a sympathetic character. Her failed attempts at self-expression cause anguish, which is itself exacerbated by the pain of her having no real self to express—something she occasionally seems dimly aware of. What she does have is a set of clichés and social media devotions. The driving imperative of her life is this: "Basically, you know, like, be yourself, and don't care about what other people think about you . . . and everything will work out if you're just being yourself," Her room is littered with sticky notes, exhortations: "Get new green shades of eyeliner," "Put a little lip gloss on the cheeks for shine," "Learn a new joke every day," "Dream big!," She sets up a V-Log and begins recording and posting. As laughable as her character often is, the film resists the temptation to make sport of her, even when she delivers lines like this: "Being yourself is really hard, and the hard part about being yourself is that it's not always easy."
In striking contrast to Kayla is the character Tom (played by New Zealand actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in the film Leave No Trace, which is directed by Debra Granik, who previously directed Jennifer Lawrence in her breakout role in Winter's Bone. While individuals who barely notice her existence surround Kayla, Tom has only her father, but he cares deeply for her. Entering the city only occasionally for supplies, they lead, in a public park in the Oregon mountains, a hunter-gatherer life, collecting rainwater and mushrooms, building tents, and making plans to protect themselves from wild animals. Yet they live contentedly. For all his psychological burdens, there is nothing creepy or untoward about his love for his daughter.
When they are discovered and forced out of the park, Tom is taken into protective custody and subject to a battery of cognitive and social tests. Academically, she tests above her grade level, a testament to the success of her father's homeschooling. Tom quickly responds not only to academic challenges, but also to social opportunities with peers and adults, even with natural adolescent affection to a local boy.
The odd thing is that the girl living in wilderness conditions has received a solid education. After some initial shyness in the presence of adults, she exhibits greater social adroitness than poor Kayla, who has had the benefit of at least eight years of public school education. The socialization so prized by the defenders of standard public school education here deforms Kayla's soul almost to the point that there is no there, there—a ghost in a social media machine.
The way in which social media and technology have informed and transformed the lives of young Americans is a pervasive theme in the fine book The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, by Matthew Crawford, whose previous work includes Shop Class as Soulcraft. Addicted to technology and fueled by shallow conceptions of individual freedom, the autonomous self is "fragile, weary of her sovereignty, and full of complaints." We suffer from a crisis of self-possession. As our commitment to autonomy has grown, we experience ourselves paradoxically as having less power over our own lives. Technological-consumerist freedom throws us back on ourselves as isolated individuals, who have increasing control over an increasingly limited and decreasingly significant realm of experience. The character of Kayla is but the latest case study.
Crawford also thinks that in a world dominated by technology, interaction through social media increasingly substitutes for encounters with external things and other persons. This puts before us the tantalizing possibility of a frictionless universe, one in which the external world presents no obstacles to our will. Here he reprises a version of his argument from Shop Class as Soulcraft, namely, that some form of manual labor is useful—perhaps in our time indispensable—for achieving virtuous freedom. True freedom consists in confronting and navigating external constraints and in conforming to objective standards external to the will. Friction is an accepted condition of adult human life. For all the deprivations Tom endures in the woods with her father, frictions of varied, concrete, and insuperable types are what she encounters every day.
What I have tried to develop here are some of the suggestive themes and implications of these two critically acclaimed films whose juxtaposition is illuminating. Bypassed by the Academy in favor of films that are more explicitly didactic, these films, grounded in compelling storytelling and carried by terrific performances, manage both to entertain and instruct.