Eighth Grade, the debut film from writer-director Bo Burnham, tells the devastatingly resonant story of a girl trying her best to begin her “coming of age” story. It’s in the film’s allegorical construct, however, that Burnham seems to have succinctly defined what life is in 2018.
Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day, portrayed wonderfully by Elsie Fisher, in her final week of the titular year of her life. Kayla has to navigate her way through the awkward horror of being a teenage girl who does not find it easy to make friends, have fun, or even be seen, while her dad (Josh Hamilton) tries to find her under all the layers she puts between he and herself. That’s the surface narrative we’re shown, but there’s another story in the subtext; it’s where these two stories converge that we find a revelatory truth.
On its front, this is a movie about a time before movies. That is to say, coming of age films are usually–necessarily–set in high school. After all, to “come of age” means to become an adult, and you don’t become an adult after middle school; you just become a disgusting bag of zits, hormones, and attitude. No? Just me? Okay. So you don’t see a lot of movies about being in middle school. As Burnham posited, it may be because people aren’t eager to remember middle school, and I would tend to agree.
The years are different for some, so for the sake of clarity, “middle school” is generally considered the grades 6-8, or the time right before high school. When I was in middle school, my family moved at the end of my seventh grade school year. I remember I did that silly thing you see in movies, and I probably did it because I had seen it in movies, where I thought I was going to be a completely different person in a new school. I had been shy, quiet, and ostensibly friendless up to that point, and I just knew I could reinvent myself in a new school. Of course, that did not happen. I spent my eighth grade falling back into my old habit of not having a discernible personality despite my best attempts to mimic absolutely anyone because everyone seemed to find it easier than I did.
This is the story of Kayla, or at least reasonably comparable thereto, and I’d wager it’s the story of a whole lot more people than would care to admit. That’s what Eighth Grade captures so well: the period in our lives when we haven’t even figured out who to pretend to be yet.
The other half of the movie comes into play with the fact Kayla is not only a teenage girl, but she’s a teenage girl in 2018. How that shapes the movie is clear in just how ubiquitous social media is in the lives of these children, particularly in the fact Kayla has her own YouTube channel where she posts vlogs. I can literally hear the collective sound of all your eyes rolling after reading that. Oh, the “selfie generation” or perhaps you’re thinking of the catch-all insult “millennial” has turned into. I know; more importantly, Bo Burnham knows, and that’s the point.
To really discuss this aspect of Eighth Grade, we first have to spend a little time on Bo Burnham himself. You see, he began his career as one of the earliest YouTubers to find an audience, starting his channel in 2006 when he was 15. It’s this perspective that has allowed Burnham to tackle the idea of fame and performance in the internet age in previous projects, like his short-lived MTV series Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous and most recently in what could-be-but-probably-isn’t his final stand-up special Make Happy. Make Happy is a master class in observational satire; it is comedy as pop art.
There is a direct through line from Make Happy to Eighth Grade, and it has everything to do with our performative culture. There’s actually a moment in Make Happy where Burnham talks directly about social media being “the market’s answer to a generation who demanded to perform”, and that is precisely what we’re shown writ large in the character of Kayla, but of course it’s more than that. The brilliant thing here is in how it’s not just about how Kayla and her classmates use social media; it’s about how they act the same way outside of social media. Setting the story in eighth grade allows the film to use a time in our lives when we are most openly pursuing an identity in all aspects of our lives to reflect the reality that kids are not alone in their desperation to find validation and affirmation in likes, retweets, or shares.
The truth is, we never stop trying to figure out who we are and how we fit into the world. The internet and social media are not the cause of that; they just changed the way we talk about it. Now, we’re not just people looking for friends; we’re content creators building a brand through engagement, and that’s not inherently bad, but we have to be honest about it. That doesn’t mean we have to know exactly who we are, but it does mean we have to acknowledge who we don’t want to be; we have to admonish the Logan Pauls of the world and stop rewarding bad people with our valuable indulgence.
Elsie Fisher gives a naturally subdued performance that seems so rare for child actors; for how much Kayla wants to be noticed by everyone, Fisher plays away from the spotlight. Conversely, Josh Hamilton perfectly plays her dad, Mark, as a man who only wants to be noticed by one person, his daughter. Their relationship brings a warm reassurance that you don’t have to be afraid of yourself.
I’ve spent a lot of real estate talking about the story here and my interpretation of it, but Burnham also shows an adept hand behind the camera. From the moment we first see Kayla introduce herself to the camera in one of her vlogs, Eighth Grade‘s perspective is firmly planted on her but also from her viewpoint. It creates a viewing experience that’s somewhat unique to film but not one that will feel all that foreign to anyone reading this, because it’s the same voyeuristic narcissism we see every day in vlogs, live streams, or any cell phone video. It’s this camera, in the hands of someone who began making internet videos at 15, which portrays an honesty that betrays the facade put on by its subject. You know how it feels to try to take a candid selfie? Don’t say you don’t; I know you do. Alright, how about when your parents started trying to use terminology they had heard you use? Okay, what about the reaction you have when you see literally anyone who is still dabbing in 2018? Pick any of those feelings you get in the pit of your stomach; Eighth Grade is like 90 minutes of that.
Eighth Grade does a phenomenal job of marrying two concepts: being a teenage girl and falling into the performative trap of the internet; in a way that not only shows how alluring it can be to lose yourself in trying to be anyone other than yourself but also how psychologically and physically dangerous that can be if you aren’t careful. If a “black mirror” is meant to symbolize what is seen in a screen when it is turned off, what Eighth Grade illustrates is what may be more worrying is the reflection we see when the screen is lit, fam.