BY MARIAH HALL Bo Burnham didn’t intend to write and direct a movie about eighth graders, it just worked out that way. In the New Yorker, he confessed, “I wanted to talk about anxiety…Anxiety makes me feel like a terrified thirteen year old.” Burnham started out as a YouTube star in 2006 and managed to flip viral video fame into a comedy career. Now he has written and directed his first film, Eighth Grade, about a middle-school girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher). She makes YouTube videos that no one watches, aside from her endearing father, played by Josh Hamilton, signing off with the catchphrase, “Gucci!” The beeping Photobooth countdown becomes a repeated motif signaling moments of self-reflection, as the videos she makes are largely life-coaching tidbits delivered in a stuttering, self-conscious voice that feels improvised. That the actress playing a fourteen-year-old is truly fourteen, and her syntax is halting and littered with pauses in the form of “uh” and “like,” adds to the film’s authenticity.
Eighth Grade captures the reality of the collectively hellish middle school experience without falling into indie film coming-of-age narcissism or functioning as an anti-Internet cautionary tale. Most scenes left me cringing with second hand embarrassment, my breath held through painfully awkward moments. From pining after a popular boy to throwing a half-eaten banana at her hovering single parent, it was the perfect blend of melodrama and relatability. Twenty-first century adolescents are hooked on the glow of their iPhones, headphones rarely unplugged. Social media magnifies every insecurity and savages self-esteem. Kids perform their lives rather than living them, hiding behind a glass screen, striving for the validity of likes and followers. In Kayla’s absence of friends, the scroll of Tumblr posts, refreshed Twitter feed, gifs, Snapchat filters and Buzzfeed quizzes, act as emotionally vacant entertainment to distract her from real life.
One of the most striking scenes was the active shooter drill, acted out with fake blood and riot gear and ending with kids crouched under their desks in a dark classroom. What struck a chord was the indifference of these kids, the bored gazes and rolled eyes. It reminded me of giggling through fire drills with plugged ears, horsing around outside while teachers took a headcount, the excitement of a skipped class, the honk of a firetruck. The weight of a serious situation escapes a kid when potential life-or-death situations become part of a menial routine, just more directions to memorize. “What do we do when we hear gunfire?” the drill leader asks and is met with a yawning, monotonous, “Run in the other direction.” While it’s heartbreaking that school gun massacres have become part of the background noise of modern life, that’s not what the movie is about. Instead of cowering under her own desk, Kayla is huddled next to her crush trying desperately to flirt. As he blurts out “You give blowjobs?” the lights flicker on abruptly.
Burnham has a knack for exploring edgy topics without pushing them too far, creating spaces that are just uncomfortable enough to stew in. He dances along this ledge in a scene where Kayla is reluctantly pulled into a one-on-one game of Truth or Dare. Viewers are paralyzed with fear, silently urging her to get out before the unspeakable happens. When an older teenage boy prompts her to strip off her shirt and she utters a firm, “No!” is the moment she finds her voice. For a girl voted “Most Quiet” by her classmates, this is a sea change.
Burning a shoebox time capsule of movie tickets and other nostalgic keepsakes she is born anew, abandoning the version of herself that waddled shamefully through a pool party, practically paralyzed by anxiety. Sitting in the backyard with the crackling of the fire punctuated by the suburban hiss of cicadas, Kayla asks her father if it makes him sad to have a daughter like her. Stunned heartbreak registers across his face before he assures her of his unconditional love. I think this scene proves that we will never see ourselves the way that our parents see us. They ignore all of our flaws and misgivings the way a partner or friend might not, magnifying our best qualities, the parts of us that are reflections of them. Ultimately Kayla’s dad pierces through her layers of self-loathing and it is his assurance, pride and compassion that nudges her forward. Her lingering optimism, after much trampling, is renewed. In one last video she tells her future high school senior self that even if high school sucked, everything is going to be okay.