There’s something about middle school that sticks with you. You probably had braces, some mild acne, maybe bit of a unibrow, definitely side bangs or an unstyled center part. You were awkward, unsure of the social negotiations of public school because you hadn’t had enough practice. You probably got bullied by the popular kids and embarrassed yourself in front of your first crush—everyone fumbles on their first attempts. These formative memories got pressed into your mind because they traumatized you. For most of us, these cringe-worthy moments have since become hilarious stories in hindsight that we file away, until the open pages of an old yearbook bring them bubbling back up.
Co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle have bottled these exact sensations into Pen15, their Hulu series delving into the pains of female adolescence. The series follows best friends Maya and Anna as they enter middle school in the year 2000, navigating issues like social popularity, communication, sexuality, microaggressions, and white guilt under the pressures of 7th grade life. It’s right on time, taking on the mantle from recent A24 forebearers of female coming of age films like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade. But the show refreshes the genre through a comical conceit: Erskine and Konkle, both 31-year-old comedians, also play their 13-year-old selves.
You might be wondering how two 31-year-old women manage to play 13-year-old girls, especially given that the rest of the middle school cast is actually kid aged. The answer is a mix of on point Y2K-era costuming and pitch perfect performances that captures the strange and embarrassing nature of kid logic. The Japanese American Erskine sports a bowl haircut—Asian viewers may feel personally attacked by this—and a retainer. The bowl cut is Maya’s mother’s (played by Erskine’s actual mom, Mutsuko Erskine) corrective measure to Maya’s self cut “layers,” chopped in the middle of the night before the first day of school in an attempt to channel Sarah Michelle Gellar. Konkle sports braces and inhabits space uncomfortably, with a slouch that passively explains the fact that she’s much taller than the other 13-year-olds around her.
Maya and Anna both actively aspire to be stylish, but are trapped in pre-teen bodies they awkwardly attempt to flatter in early aughts fashion. Erskine and Konkle understand that a realistic physical performance requires some exposed belly, loose low rise pants, and a stolen hot pink thong, as we see in one episode. In these moments, the conceit of these two women’s real ages becomes jarringly funny. And when tackling the matter of a first kiss, the 31-year-olds circumvent anything creepy by never portraying anything on screen—though implying a kiss may have happened—and leaning into their character’s awkwardness to avoid anything that might read inappropriate.
Each episode of Pen15 packs an astonishing density of material in less than half an hour. We’re given a window into the terrible social dynamics of middle school, and the ways a close friendship makes these dynamics bearable. In one vignette, Anna shares her newly purchased Calico Critters—or a similar brand of anthropomorphized animal collectables—with Maya. They intend on playing with the set that evening, a fact that the boys at the table immediately glom onto and ridicule them for. The girls are able to effectively, albeit momentarily, deflect the taunts back to the boys by foisting the reputation of “playing with dolls” onto one of them.
Because there is no greater insult to a young boy than to suggest he is in any way effeminate, the boy decides it’s appropriate to tell the entire cafeteria that the two girls still “play with dolls.” (The mind reels with memories of being told “boys will be boys.”) The entire cafeteria erupts in laughter, forcing the girls to escape to the bathroom where they eat their lunch. While Maya and Anna camp out in the bathroom, the popular girls crowd into the neighboring stall, gossiping and dropping a cigarette on the floor. Seemingly still embarrassed by the boys making fun of their child-like toys, Maya and Anna instead spend that evening at a basement kickback with the school’s popular girls, drinking beer, huffing from a can of computer keyboard cleaner, and pretend-smoking the cigarette.
At that same party, the boys do a schoolyard pick to determine who they want to spend the rest of the night making out with. Anna gets stuck with an eight-year-old who is ”fucking hot,” the girls say. But he’s eight and obviously no one should (or does) “make out” with him. Maya spends her entire session deflecting intimacy by cracking jokes and wearing a jacket while it dangles from a coat hanger. The boys’ ridicule becomes a key moment in which Maya and Anna are forced to abandon their childhood naïveté or risk being uncool.
In fact, Maya and Anna’s desire to “be cool”—or at least not uncool—is one of the major themes of the show. Self-esteem is a constant negotiation, particularly at an age where kids differ in their physical development. The popular girls have smooth hair, wear slim bootcut jeans, and stylish shirts and camisoles. They have boobs. They wear thongs (which, as previously mentioned, gets stolen in one episode in an attempt to absorb its power). Eighth graders are dutifully portrayed with a kind of intimidation and edge, despite being only a year older than our protagonists. Maya’s older brother, who’s in eighth grade, gives her a string of incredible expletives to wield at her tormentors who labeled her UGIS—ugliest girl in school. The clapback beautifully included the phrase “aardvark dick.” However, Maya freaks out and delivers this “bitch-out” incorrectly, eventually panic screaming that his “aardvark dick” is the reason his father died. Unsurprisingly, this does not go over well.
Nearly all of Maya and Anna’s attempts at popularity are wrought with this unbearably relatable cringe humor. The girls cuss with diligence to being subversive, because a little rebellion is what makes you “cool.” But—much like the way Erskine and Konkle wear clothing—cursing is an awkward fit. It’s clear about how much they’re thinking about the curse words, in the abstract, without really understanding the impact of the language itself.
Erskine and Konkle also bring to life so many of the unspoken rituals of girlhood—ones that you keep to yourself or only share with your closest friend. Sexual self discovery and pleasure, and the way the girls are scared of seeming dirty or “perverted,” as they refer to it. Even this has a sharp comedic edge, as Maya’s masturbation spree is interrupted by her guilt which manifests as a ghost of her ojiichan (Japanese for “grandad”) watching her. While Anna and Maya’s friendship isn’t perfect, it serves as a realistic home base for them to navigate these challenges of puberty. They’re constantly fighting and making up, as they learn the line between the emotions they feel privately and the ones they share. Through these experiences they also learn that they may not do all of their “firsts” together, as they swear they will at the start of the series. In the case of “first fingers” this is probably a good thing.
The show amounts to a boisterously campy and painful excess of emotion. To be a child is to be, in so many ways, completely powerless and at the mercy of adult caretakers. Events that feel small to an adult have profound emotional impact on a kid. At the age of 13, you just begin to understand prejudice and its inescapable imprint on every aspect of life—to be a girl is to experiences numerous disadvantages, and to be a girl of color compounds these disadvantages exponentially. In one episode Maya learns about racism and immediately vomits upon recalling all of the microaggressions she’s experienced. It’s difficult to watch these episodes without reliving your own torment as a child—the ruthlessness with which peers cast judgment, how bullying escalates, the often uncomfortable transformation of your body, and the way adults are ill-equipped to deal with any of it.
It is, at times, not a particularly pleasant revisit, but that is perhaps what makes it such a successful portrayal—in watching you remember just how much middle school is a time we would all rather forget. Pen15 helps us fondly recall the agony and the excitement of that time.
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