The Quiet Girl is Finally Talking: The Voices of Eighth Grade and The Edge of Seventeen
Two brilliant new movies are giving the quiet teenage girl a long-awaited strength. Emily Maskell looks back on The Edge of Seventeen and Eighth Grade, celebrating the voices of the ones who usually hide.
There’s nothing like falling into bed after school and recounting all the nightmare-inducing interactions that have just been lived through. From mortifying conversations to cringe-worthy silences, all that remains is to contemplate: when will the memorable moments start happening in this movie of my life? Both Eighth Grade and The Edge of Seventeen shine a spotlight on young women navigating their sense of self and allow them to voice their perspective on life. But what happens when your voice is too quiet to be heard?
Comedian-turned-filmmaker Bo Burnham invites identification with 13-year-old Kayla in his directorial debut, as she endures her last week of eighth grade. Attention is given to the invisible weight of anxiety that bears on her shoulders. Kayla, with her tentative and often stifled voice, is voted ‘Most Quiet’ among her peers. Her silence is an indicator of her self-consciousness, as she rejects even her compassionate father’s concerned attempts to talk. Kayla finds herself unloading her worries on the internet, in homemade videos on her YouTube channel – though her nerves are still present, as she avoids looking directly into the camera lens. She admits, “I’m really, like, nervous all the time. Like, I could be doing nothing, and I’m just nervous”, indicating the struggle to define where her anxiety even comes from. Self-doubt plagues Kayla’s words. Even when conversations have been rehearsed in the bathroom mirror, her speech dissolves into stuttered, unfinished sentences.
The candid nuances of Nadine’s life are captured in The Edge of Seventeen with a frank authenticity. With her head in the toilet bowl, she groans, “And then I had the worst thought. I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with myself”. Painfully embarrassed, the teenager spirals into a mindset of self-torture. To minimise the possibilities of awkwardness during face-to-face interactions, she resorts to texting. But this ends up in her praying that an ‘undo’ button will magically appear, as she has a breakdown in a playground over a message she never intended to send. Having now revealed to her crush that she likes him by offering sexual favours in the school stockroom, Nadine is drowning in panic. The paradox of dealing with sexual subjects while sat at the bottom of a yellow slide highlights the fragility of Nadine’s age: not old enough to have full independence, yet too old to throw a tantrum. Her attempts to speak usually result in her grimacing the moment the words leave her mouth.
When the strain of social situations becomes overwhelming, both Kayla and Nadine share the instinct of retreating to the quiet sanctuary of a bathroom. The lock on the door creates a safe space from all that exists beyond. Nadine, enduring a party she doesn’t want to be at, stares into the mirror muttering instructions to, “Just have a good time. Just relax. Just relax. Have a good time”. Managing to coax herself out, she is submerged in the crowd and wanders alone through swarming bodies. She is framed from a distance, seemingly lost and unnoticed. Nadine feels invisible in the room. Unable to engage in conversation and with her coat folded in her arms, she’s ready to leave only moments after she arrived.
Kayla takes shelter in a bathroom at a pool party when changing into her neon green swimsuit. In the isolated space, her breathing becomes erratic as a panic attack takes over. Kayla’s nauseating dread is translated with dizzying visuals, the bathroom walls are a blur as she paces to calm herself down. She overcomes her all-consuming worry and proves her immense bravery when she enters the lion’s den of a pool party. Moments later, Kayla manages to feign confidence as she strides to take the microphone of a karaoke machine. With all eyes on her, she smiles a euphoric grin, and, for a moment, she is exactly who she wants to be.
Kayla faces challenges that she must navigate independently. She finds herself alone in a car with a boy a few years older than her, Riley – a friend of a friend. He’s driving Kayla home after an afternoon at the mall with her new high school ‘mentor’ Olivia and her friends. What begins as a seemingly harmless gesture develops into an uneasy game of Truth or Dare. With Kayla’s hands clasped across her chest, she shifts in discomfort in the back of the claustrophobic, dark car. The raw vulnerability Kayla exudes is a reminder of her young age, but all cues go unnoticed by Riley as the moment seems never-ending. Kayla assesses the situation, judging if it is safe to speak. Her building panic is the catalyst to vocalise her unwillingness. Without the soundtrack, which illustrates so much of the rest of the film’s anxiety, Kayla’s voice pierces through the silence. She must trust the strength of her own voice to take control of her own wellbeing, and there is a relief that comes with knowing she has the power to do so.
Nadine meets with her crush, Nick, and as they sit in his car together, her agitation escalates. The song ‘Big Jet Plane’ fades out as the tone abruptly shifts from being exciting to disconcerting. After Nick continues to make unwelcome advances, Nadine stutters apologies for not cooperating with his wishes. Her confidence diminishes, as she grows uncomfortable sitting in an incapacitating silence. Hesitantly leaning over the gearstick, she tries to force her body into cooperation to make up for her ‘mistake’, even though her nervous glances continue to indicate her discomfort. Nadine’s self-imposed pressure, added to Nick’s expectations, becomes too much. The maturity from her voice vanishes as she scrambles to leave.
Both Kayla and Nadine battle a rising anxiety that intends to silence them. Their valiant attempts to interact may be defined by apprehension, but the boldness they summon to fight these fears beams with progress. Eighth Grade and The Edge of Seventeen take an empathetic angle to understand their courageous young women, handing them the microphone to speak their own truth. Neither Kayla or Nadine suddenly become extroverted or confident people with their lives in order. But by stepping out of the bathroom and knowing when to run from the car in a hurry, the quiet girls are finally talking.
Emily Maskell (@EmMaskell) is a freelance film writer. Em studies film and continues to love the cinema as her tears can’t be seen in the dark. She has written for Flip Screen, Screen Queens, Little White Lies and more.