The creators of Bo Burnham’s lauded new indie coming-of-age film, “Eighth Grade,” always knew it would receive an R-rating, that would keep out the very audience members it’s made for: teenagers. The MPAA’s decision wasn’t a close call, nor was there any discussion about cuts that could be made to earn a PG-13. Nor is A24 pulling a Harvey Weinstein and stirring up controversy (and free publicity) about eighth graders being barred from seeing a film that delivers a positive message about the universal struggle of middle school.
Here’s why: The word “fuck,” uttered five times in the movie, is a non-starter for the MPAA, which limits PG-13 movies to one f-bomb. Or more specifically, as spelled out in Section III, C, 3 of the Ratings Rules:
A motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires a PG-13 raging. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in sexual context. The Rating Board nevertheless may rate such a motion picture PG-13 if, based on a special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used or because the use of the words in the motion picture is inconspicuous.
Yet, even if Burnham trimmed it down to one “fuck,” the MPAA still had a “blow job” problem. Not that anyone in the film receives oral sex on- or off-screen, but more that it’s simply discussed. Kayla (Elsie Fisher), the lonely protagonist who is on the outside looking in on her peers’ social activities, works up the nerve to approach her crush (Luke Prael) after learning, quite correctly, the way to get his attention is to tease the possibility of nude selfies. This awkward conversation leads a flustered Kayla to mention out-of-the-blue that she’s also good at oral sex — now she really has Mr. One-Track Mind’s attention, as he puts down his video game — which leads to a humorous scene of the rather innocent 13-year-old trying to educate herself about oral sex.
This might give the impression that the film is the middle-school version of a Judd Apatow film where friends engage in raunchy and open discussions of sex, but nothing could be further from the truth. “Eighth Grade” and Kayla are actually quite wholesome. Kayla can’t make it through 10 seconds of a mundane YouTube tutorial about oral sex or put a banana in her mouth to practice without being grossed out. Part of what “Eighth Grade” captures so well is how Kayla is not ready for any of this, and how young women are put into positions where they are pressured to barter their sexuality for social acceptance — a problem compounded while coming of age in the era of Snapchat and smartphones.
The irony here is “Eighth Grade” shows nothing that isn’t part of middle school sex ed, and the underlying message about social media, nude selfies, and being pressured into having sex is the exact conversation educators struggle to have with their students. Burnham’s film is an incredible aid to those adults. It uses the medium to do what movies can do so well: Make the viewer emotionally relate to what a character is thinking and feeling. We feel the pressure Kayla feels to be accepted. We feel how that is used by boys to pressure sex and just how not right that is for her. The conflict going on inside of Kayla is one that adults are desperate to help kids untangle.
The R-rating gives the impression “Eighth Grade” is about those “crazy kids today,” but that’s not even on the periphery of Burnham’s film. The official MPAA explanation, placed on the poster, is “language and some sexual material” – or as New York Times Manohla Dargis slyly altered in her review, “Rated R for real human language.”
The nonprofit parental watchdog group Common Sense Media, which applauded the film with a 4-star rating, wrote this:
[T]his is a good (if slightly cringe-worthy) movie to watch with your teen. There’s so much here for parents and their teens to unpack, from mean-girl behavior and too much/inappropriate screen use to the importance of being careful around older teens (particularly for girls) and saying ‘no’ to unwanted sexual advances. And ultimately, it also promotes open communication between teens and their parents, as well as courage, since Kayla learns to love and speak up for herself.
Most parents and adults won’t watch this film with their kids, as Common Sense recommends: it is cringe-inducing and will lead to awkward discussions. Those who have that sort of healthy relationship with their kids or students probably could show them “A Clockwork Orange” and all will be fine. But those kids who will have to see this alone — the 13-year-old girl for whom this film holds a mirror up to her existence and reflects back an image of empathy, respect, and courage — will have to break the rules to do so. And since “Eighth Grade” isn’t something that’s even a borderline call for the MPAA, or worth A24 even pushing back on, it may be time to reconsider where these lines are being drawn.
Just because it is less awkward for adults in United States to let kids watch the violence and mayhem of PG-13 movies like the “Dark Knight” or “Suicide Squad,” doesn’t mean we are making the right choices. Standards are meant to help people make good choices, not comfortable ones. Isn’t that what we teach our kids?