The moving picture of adolescents on screen


Faith Wallace

Middle School often gets a terrible reputation as a bridge between childhood and teenagers. During this time obstacles such as puberty, school, and social pressure emerge. Movies such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Akeelah and the Bee, and Eighth Grade exemplify the pre-teen struggle.

Movies are everywhere shaping and mirroring the culture around us. They can start fashion trends, change speech and expose people to different cultural beliefs. How groups are presented in film can show how society views them. Looking at three movies from three different middle school grades, what do they tell us about the portrayal of pre-teens?


Diary of a Wimpy Kid (sixth grade)

In this Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie, we see our protagonist Greg Heffley’s start at middle school isn’t as easy as he expected. Nothing is easy with middle school. Greg has to follow a new cue of social rules and the odds are against him when it comes to getting the recognition and fame he so clearly desires. 

In the eyes of Greg, middle school is a challenge and he is only more scared by his brother Roderick who says, “Who am I kidding? You’ll be dead or homeschooled by the end of the year anyway.” Still, Greg believes he’ll ease his way through it as he believes he is fundamentally superior to all his peers. “Thank god there are a few normal people like me or else this place would be a total freak show,” Greg says. 

Greg’s main drive for the whole movie is to be on the yearbook class favorites, a book where the most popular in the grade are featured. Though Greg doesn’t want to improve his personality, he wants to be well-liked and engages in a fantasy of being popular and rich. He creates a popularity list of the whole school with him ranked at 17, which he quickly goes down in after embarrassing moments like losing a wrestling match to Patty Farrell, an embarrassing defeat of his masculinity, and dressing up as a tree and refusing to sing in a school musical. 

His attempt to make his personality middle-school-ready creates conflict with his only friend Rowley Jerfferson. It gets to the point where he lets Rowley take the blame for his actions of throwing kids in a dump because Greg doesn’t want to get kicked off the safety patrol. 

 Greg is relatable because he’s never portrayed as always doing the right thing; he’s prone to mistakes. He’s not the perfect role model that you often see in books and movies given to kids. The mistakes he makes pile up on top of each other and he just doesn’t magically get what he wants by the end of the movie. He’s learned the moral lesson of friendship, but will he likely continue on with his self-centered ways? 

Greg is relatable because he’s never portrayed as always doing the right thing; he’s prone to mistakes. He’s not the perfect role model that you often see in books and movies given to kids.”

Greg wants to be seen as more mature without any of the responsibilities that comes with it. He doesn’t want to make any commitments like being serious about the wrestling club or safety patrol. He has this idea of being middle-school-ready built off of films/T.V. and while he applies that to himself, his attempts to change Rowley to become more middle school ready (changing his language, bike, and clothes) are futile and Rowley ends up becoming popular just by being himself. 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a good portrayal of middle school and it shows the things middle schoolers are going through but through a more overblown, self-centered protagonist. “You got kids like me who haven’t had their growth spurt mixed up with gorillas,” Greg says. 

The portrayal of middle schoolers as a whole however ranges from naive to selfish. There’s Greg’s best friend Rowley and classmate Fregley who wouldn’t hurt a soul. Then there’s Greg’s enemy Patty Farall and Greg himself who both fall under the selfish category.  Not to mention, all-knowing Angie who just nods at the message throughout the film. The middle schoolers all have distinct personalities and the comedy comes from the absurd pre-teen situations. 


Akeelah and the Bee (7th grade)

Seventh grader Akeelah is enrolled in Crenshaw Middle School. She has a natural gift for spelling and, not wanting to disappoint her late father or get a semester of detention, she enrolls in her school’s spelling bee. With the help of former spelling bee champion Dr. Joshua Larabee, she’ll be able to make the spelling bee for sure. 

This movie is a classic example of an underdog from a terrible school who makes it despite the odds being against her. It’s a hearty story with stereotypical food and language, for example, “I’m not down with no spelling bee.” It’s an attempt by the director to make the kids sound more relatable, but instead of sounding realistic it comes off as a cliche. 

Akeelah and the Bee offers criticism of the public system. Akeelah is forced to do the spelling bee because her school doesn’t have enough money and she needs to participate. “I think you’re the first speller we have ever had from Crenshaw Middle School,” says the lady registering the kids for the spelling bee. Akeelah’s mom calls the spelling bee off saying Akeelah missed a bunch of school and will have to take summer school. Akeelah protests saying, “It’s so boring there. Nobody cares.” 

The budgets in these districts are so bad that Akeelah is forced to do the spelling bee because her school doesn’t have enough money. The apathetic attitude of how the state views public education is eased onto the students.  A kid who misses the first question asks “who cares?”  Akeelah is even taunted by two random girls booing her before she tries out. 

Trying to achieve academic success is mocked around her school. When Dr. Larabee stands up and quizzes her after misspelling a word, kids laugh at her. As she trudges home she wonders why she has to complete this for her school. Her friend says that it’s not for the school but for her doing this will allow her to accomplish more things in life. She comes to Dr. Larabee’s house who agrees to tutor her on one condition, “Leave the ghetto talk outside. You speak properly or not at all.,” saying she uses it to fit in with her friends. She stands up and leaves his premise saying his “proper words” back at him.

As Akeelah trudges onto the spelling bee championship, she deals with self esteem issues.  The goals she has entering into the first regionals are not very high. After winning the spelling bee on the technicality of someone cheating, she has an urge to confide in someone and remembers a friend who gave her his phone number to help her out. Taking the bus there she meets another contestant Dylan Chi, considered a genius at spelling, who confirms her worst fear, “If that idiot hadn’t been caught cheating you would have never made the cut.” 

The lack of self-esteem is shown gradually and Akeelah isn’t shown as the stereotype of being unable to speak for herself. She just isn’t able to embrace herself due to the pressure of her peers to conform.”

Outside she finds her friend and they study for the next competition using basketball. Akeela however doesn’t know whether she wants to fully commit. She wants to go back to her normal world where there isn’t that much pressure. She feels as though everybody is counting on her and she doesn’t know whether or not she’s cut out for it. Dr. Larabee not only teaches her how to study but shows her that it’s okay to want and be confident in one’s self. At the end, both her and Dylan win as co-champions. 

Akeelah and the bee is a good portrayal of some middle schools. It deals with the complacent attitudes that slashed budgets can bring. It portrays some aspects of middle school well with the lack of self-esteem and insecurities that plague the pre-teen experience. The lack of self-esteem is shown gradually and Akeelah isn’t shown as the stereotype of being unable to speak for herself. She just isn’t able to embrace herself due to the pressure of her peers to conform. Her self-esteem issues drag her down and she overcomes it in a heartfelt way with gradually learning to trust herself and the help of the spelling bee as well as Dr. Larabee.The tale itself seems unlikely and unrelatable. A part of that is the dramatic backstory that something awful always has to happen for greatness to be achieved. The characters themselves are portrayed in an accurate way with everyone having their own goals and motivations. Everyone besides the two girls booing at Akeelah. It’s a dramatic tale with some heart in it. 


Eighth Grade (8th grade)

In Eighth Grade, Kayla deals with the awkwardness of being a pre-teen at the end of her eighth grade year. This movie is shown through the perspective of a quiet kid rather than a popular girl. 

The movie starts off with a fake positive message from our protagonist Kayla’s youtube channel. It’s found out that Kayla gives advice on how to be confident and make friends despite not following any of it. The close ups and the wide shots make the audience feel squeamish as Kayla tries to make friends before leaving eighth grade. 

The story not only shows Kayla’s struggle to fit in, but also shows the strained relationship with parents. At the start of the film you feel as though Kayla and her dad are miles apart from each other. An awkward dinner table scene with Kayla on her phone starts with, “You’re food is getting cold. “ “I like it cold.” There was nothing for them to bond over and therefore nothing to say. By the end of the film, her and her dad become much closer as he comforts her after burning her sixth grade image of who she used to be. 

In sixth grade she wished things would change but they remained stagnant in eighth grade. Throughout the movie, we see her think of highschool as a saving grace. She was excited to start new and improve her social standing after being voted “Most Quiet.” Attending a shadow program she meets Olivia who gives her hope in a new highschool future. They exchange numbers and soon Olivia invites her to the mall with her friends, which Kaya anxiously accepts. 

It goes smoothly, Kayla nods but doesn’t talk much, and then finds out her dad followed her. She confronts him and tells him to leave. Feeling awkward, she gets a ride home from one of Oliva’s friends. Olivia’s friend plays truth or dare and in a squeamish sexual moment tells her to take off her shirt. She refuses to do so coming home crying and gives up on being popular after seeing high school is no better. She stops doing her Youtube videos when realizing that it’s better to be herself than her enhanced self. 

Eighth Grade is an exceptional movie and even better at the portrayal of middle school. The characters are amazing, everyone has their own plot line in this story and it doesn’t feel as though anyone’s there to move the plot around. It deals with self-esteem issues and body image in the modern age. It shows a time when pre-teens are starting to become more independent and the clash of the generations who weren’t born with smartphones. It doesn’t offer a solution but shows that not everything will get better even if you try to better yourself. It’s a realistic yet harsh view of middle school but offers a great message about being yourself. 


Which movie is best?

Akeelah and the Bee is a much more dramatic take on middle school, while Diary of a Wimpy Kid could be looked at as satirical, and Eighth Grade as realistic. Depending on how you look at these films they can represent terrible experiences or great ones. Diary of a Wimpy Kid could be a story where everything bad that could happen does, or a story about finding friendship. Eighth Grade is a tale about how middle school ruins people’s self-esteem, or makes people accept themselves for who they are. In Akeelah and the Bee, middle school makes it hard to fit in, alternatively it can make people find what they’re good at and explore new opportunities. In your middle school experience you decide how you want to view and shape your middle school passage.