Can you imagine being a kid in the age of social media? I graduated from high school in 2003 and in less than a year, Mark Zuckerberg would launch Facebook. I don’t even remember kids having cell phones when I was in high school. Does that make me old?
Kids today are not only well-versed in technology, they’re bred into it. Give a five-year-old a tablet and within 10 minutes, they’ll be conquering Candy Crush. Give them your phone and they’ll probably be maxing out your credit cards on Amazon.
The worst time to experience social media is when you’re a teenager. You’re already dealing with awkwardness, anxiousness and acne. You have no idea who you are as a person and social media can shine a light into how “boring and unoriginal” your life truly is. Unless you cultivate it.
13-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is one of those awkward teenagers. But as Eighth Grade, the debut film from comedian Bo Burnham begins, she’s posting a video on her YouTube channel about how to be yourself no matter what. She posts videos throughout the film giving fellow teenagers advice on how to navigate the tricky world of adolescence in 2018. Call it a digital diary.
The irony however is that she doesn’t have the faintest idea who she is or what to do. She’s a walking contradiction. She’s about to finish middle school which means high school is on the horizon. She has very few friends (If any) and social situations are the worst.
But as the film progresses, she attempts to finally gain confidence and use some of that advice she’s been giving in her videos.
Eighth Grade is a lovely, sweet, and often funny commentary on the youth of America today. Fisher gives a wonderful and endearing performance as Kayla and her relationship with her single father, played by the always great Josh Hamilton, is portrayed with tenderness and nuance. Every scene they share together is painfully pitch-perfect. If that makes sense.
Eighth Grade isn’t exactly plot driven. Instead, Burnham presents a slice-of-life drama. Kayla crushes on a boy, with phenomenal musical cues, but it doesn’t resolve itself like we normally see in coming-of-age stories. There’s also a pool party that is as uncomfortable as it gets, but doesn’t act as an essential or revelatory scene to move the story forward.
Burnham’s interests lie in examining the current life of a 13-year-old girl through the prism of Kayla. And while that could come off as raunchy and immature, Burnham’s comedic talents shine through to present a biting and sometimes political satire. In one scene, Kayla goes through a school-shooting drill that is both frighteningly eye-opening and strangely one of the funnier scenes in the film. In another scene, Kayla deals with sexual advances from an older student. It’s a scene that could have gone terribly wrong. But Burnham captures it in a way that doesn’t shy away from the dark truths that have been revealed in the MeToo movement.
Kayla is alone through much of the film and that’s a conscience effort Burnham makes. The presence of social media establishes the illusion of knowing other people without actually speaking to them to learn more about them. Kayla’s social anxiety is a commentary on our diminishing ability or desire to interact with people face-to-face.
Despite being a first-time director and writer, Burnham shows great confidence and intelligence in his storytelling. He doesn’t concern himself with presenting traditional archetypes in his film which would classify as a “teen film.” There’s no bullies, no supportive teachers or even the homecoming dance at the end. Sorry John Hughes lovers.
It’s just an intimate portrait of one teenage girl. In one of the better scenes, Kayla finally opens up to her father about everything she’s dealing with. It’s the only time her mother is ever mentioned, but that’s not what the scene is about. It’s about her hating herself and being terrified that no one will ever see her for who she really is. Hamilton’s parenting in this scene is truly heartwarming and essential viewing for any parent with a teenager.
Some may see Eighth Grade as a “rough draft” for a coming-of-age story. But Burnham presents it in a documentary-like way that is refreshingly unflattering and realistic. It captures “moments” that are sometimes hilarious, sometimes painful and even a little touching.