I saw the trailer for Eighth Grade a few months ago, in the company of some teens, including a girl a year younger than the character in this film. I asked her if she’d be interested in seeing the film, and her response was “no,” because, being made by adults, it would not be a realistic portrayal of teen life.
It’s a fair point. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, about the last year of high school, was made around my last year of high school. Almost nothing in the film resembles my experiences of high school. The best line in the film, at least for me, was a line that was not included in the theatrical print, and used as filler in the TV version (how I first saw it). Now the film appeals for its incidental nostalgic scenes of my youth – clothing, hair, jeans, and video games at the mall.
However, Fast Times includes an accidental pregnancy, and, like much of what is supposedly a comedy, the circumstances of the pregnancy are grim. The sex was lousy, and the boy is unable to come up with the money to help pay for the abortion, or even give the girl a ride to the clinic. It’s a cautionary tale, not over-emphasized, but effective, and the main reason why I think the film is great for teens to watch, even if not everything rings true to their experience.
Unfortunately, Fast Times was (and still is) a Restricted movie in the United States. Teens are not supposed to see it. This is part of a long history of teens not being admitted to cautionary films about them, including Kids (1995), Bully (2001), and Hounddog (2007).
Eighth Grade has received rave reviews, scoring 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, and even conservative reviewers recommend that teens see the film. Adults seem to think it is realistic, but whether teens agree, I’m not sure. Regardless, it includes cautionary tales and models good decision making, and is probably a good film for teens to see. Yet the MPAA says no.
The distributor is taking advantage of the controversy over the R rating to promote the film (of course), recently offering free unrated screenings.
Since Eighth Grade is rated R and that’s sort of stupid we’re doing free screenings in every state this Wednesday with no ratings enforced. Come watch, kids! https://t.co/iJi8nkmz0v
— Bo Burnham (@boburnham) August 6, 2018
Part of the reason for the rating is sexuality. As humourously detailed in This Film is Not Yet Rated, realistic and sensitive portrayals of sexuality, especially female sexuality or teen sexuality, and especially both, have always been difficult for the MPAA (and other agencies). The other reason is language. Bad words are easy to track, and most classification agencies have some seemingly objective rules around them. For the MPAA, language alone can get a film an R rating.
My research has shown that the vast majority of films get a lower age rating in Canada than given by the MPAA, and that’s true for Eighth Grade. It’s 14A in most of the country, and in the Maritimes and Quebec there are no age restrictions. Only Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia felt a sexual content advisory was warranted. So in most of the country, people 14 and up can see it without restrictions. That’s better than in the United States, but wouldn’t it be better if every child could easily see a film that models a good way to react when someone pressures you to take off your shirt? It might not be part of everyone’s experience, but cautionary tales do no harm.