What do you get when you mix uncontrollable acne, sex-ed classes, Snapchat, and Instagram? Middle school.
Eighth Grade is an unglamorous coming-of-age film we can all see a little bit of ourselves in. The film, directed by veteran star-turned-comedian Bo Burnham, focuses on suburban American, 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she navigates her way through the end of middle school while making how-to YouTube videos on how to be your best self.
“Being yourself can be hard. And it’s like, aren’t I always being myself? And yeah, for sure, but, being yourself is not changing yourself to impress someone else,” she says in one of her vlogs.
This remains the premise of the whole story: Kayla is molding herself into the person she wants to be—or the person she thinks she has to be. She moves through middle school so incredibly aware of her every move, covering her acne with poorly applied foundation with help from a YouTube video. She stares out of the house upstairs while her peers push each other into a pool outside, the scene playing out as if it’s set in a jungle and she’s a lost traveller. Kayla is on the outside.
It becomes obvious that Kayla doesn’t have anything or anyone to look to in her life; the only place she finds solace is online. When she’s not at school, she’s on Instagram and Twitter in her bedroom lit only by faint Christmas lights, scrolling and commenting on the posts of classmates she doesn’t actually talk to IRL. It’s as sad as it is funny, and although some of us are far past the middle school days we can’t help but think of the parallels between our own digital lives and hers.
Burnham admitted that he has all the same anxieties as Kayla, all fuelled by the Internet.
“I feel like it’s made everyone have a sense that ‘My life is not real. My friends aren’t real,'” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s hard to describe in words…all of my fears and all of my worries, I have because I am addicted to the Internet. It has made me worse.”
The film is most honest in its representation of tech and social media’s influence. Unlike most films and their portrayals of teens’ toxic relationships with their phones/the Internet/anything that isn’t a book, Eighth Grade doesn’t preach about the dangers of social media but rather provides an accurate depiction of how it exists in people’s lives. Although Kayla finds it hard to talk to people in real life, there’s also something to be said for her finding the guts to make advice videos and upload them on YouTube, proving that the Internet can be used for good, after all.
It was important for Burnham that the audience relate to Kayla. “If we can see ourselves in Kayla maybe we can forgive ourselves for being delusional people online,” he said. “We just want to be loved, like she does.”
Though the film presents a specific reflection of what it’s like to be young in 2018, the themes of Eighth Grade are universal. The thing that makes the film resonate so deeply is its understanding of what it’s like to be not just a 13-year-old but a human, and the intense desire to be seen and validated that comes with that.
Every awkward interaction and overcompensation is approached with an accuracy that hits viewers in the right spot, one where we can cringe and nod and say we’ve been there before. Eighth Grade is an all-too-real depiction of growing up, with all the embarrassing moments that remind us how hard it is learn how to simply be you, whoever that might be. But for most viewers, it’s likely the film didn’t need to show us that—you’ve probably already lived through it.
The exciting directorial debut by Bo Burnham starring Elsie Fisher is out in theatres now. Watch the trailer below.