Eighth Grade (2018)
Written & Directed by Bo Burnham
It’s the last week of eighth grade for Kayla, and this whole middle school experience has not worked out how she imagined it would. She’s voted most quiet, has no real close friends, and gets awkwardly invited to a pool party where she’s not wanted. When Kayla is alone in her bedroom, she records videos for her YouTube channel on topics like “Being yourself” and “Putting yourself out there,” creating a super confident persona that profoundly contrasts to what she is like in real life. Kayla’s dad has given her space to explore and figure out who she is, but this young woman is having a genuine crisis of confidence on the precipice of high school. She’s afraid that the bright, happy, gregarious person she wants so badly to be is ending up just a fantasy that she can never fulfill.
During the press junkets for 2013’s Her, writer-director Spike Jonze has an interview on BBC’s Newsnight. The interviewer introduced the film as a commentary on humanity’s relationship with technology. As soon as Jonze came on, he questioned her introduction and pushed that the movie, from his point of view, isn’t about the tech and is more using this conceit to talk about the complexity of relationships and love. The protagonist in Her has extreme difficulty finding meaningful connections with others, and this fantastical idea of a super advanced AI is a smart way into that more substantial, more human idea. Many reviews of Eighth Grade are making the same mistakes, looking at this film as about middle and growing up, when writer-director Bo Burnham is saying it is much more than that.
Middle school is the setting, but it is not the idea being explored. Burnham has been very adamant that Eighth Grade was made because he was doing deep self-reflecting on his struggles with anxiety. During his time as a stand-up comedian, Burnham was having severe anxiety attacks even on stage but concealed in a such a way that he’s commented he can’t see it when watching the recordings of his performances. While Kayla is a middle schooler the worries and insecurities she feels are the same many grown adults experience daily. Do these people want to be around me? Why can’t I act normal and not weird? Is this how life will be forever?
I used to have terrible anxiety. I never saw a professional, so I can’t say that I had an official label and diagnosis. I know that I had many moments during college and into my early post-grad years that were extraordinarily agonizing and exhausting. I can remember getting ready to go out with a girl for the first time, leaving the place I was staying at and vomiting in the driveway and shaking from the internalized stress I was feeling. Anxiety always came out of social situations and the sense that the people I would be socializing with were annoyed with me and had better things to do than spend time with me. I can reflect on those times and know that this was not the case, that these worries were in my head. However, I let that anxiety overtake me, and I ended up drifting away from many people I considered close friends in college.
Burnham didn’t choose to set Eighth Grade in his adolescence of the early 2000s; he chose the setting of modern day. I think this decision to be non-nostalgic is another attempt to communicate that this story is not about our youth, but is about a universal experience. He’s also not going to shit on popular social media platforms the way so much of the adult-led media does. Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube are the ways young adults communicate, and they aren’t some evil force that will steal a young person’s innocence. I found the way Burnham uses these in his film to be one of the most refreshing presentations of technology in film in recent memory.
Kayla’s story is small from our point of view, but Burnham uses all the technical trappings of cinema to make her last week of middle school an epic moment. The music and cinematography lend gravitas to these encounters and moments in a manner that never mocks her because of her age. Burnham has said that this isn’t a film about “little us,” it is a film just about Us. The same things that made us anxious when we were young are often the same things that can trigger that anxiety to emerge again when we’re adults. Some adults get a better handle on these intense emotions, but still, have to work through them from time to time. At the end of the film, in a video to her future high school graduate self, Kayla says she’s looking forward to becoming that person, but it’s okay if what she imagines high school to be doesn’t work out that way. If we could all go that easy on ourselves, so much of our fears would melt away.