Reel Critic: Eighth Grade

By OWEN MASON-HILL

A24
Bo Burnham’s directorial debut was chosen by the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute as one of 2018’s Top 10 Films.

Bo Burnam’s 2018 critical success “Eighth Grade” is a viscerally honest and authentic film about what it means to be a teenager growing up in a society where one’s self esteem is based on likes and comments, on Instagram and Snapchat, on cute photos and carefully crafted appearances. “Eighth Grade” draws on the internet to guide its story and message. Rising through the pop culture masses as a top YouTube and Vine creator, Burnam understands the inner workings of youth culture in today’s society. 

In numerous interviews, Burnam has been noted as saying that he went to the internet for his research. He watched young teens talk in front of cameras and discuss their problems, he watched his own videos to recall how the media shaped his growth, and he noted how teens utilize and communicate on social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. All of this research, hours spent creating and watching videos on the internet, has allowed Burnam to represent teens in an honest way, creating the story from within the community rather than from the outside looking in.

“Eighth Grade” centers around middle-schooler Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) as she reaches the end of  eighth grade. Kayla is seen as shy, quiet and deeply introverted, often lingering on the outskirts of groups and conversations, listening deeply, but remaining silent. She smiles awkwardly when someone confronts her, and is vastly more comfortable in her room than at school or a party. Throughout the film, Kayla creates YouTube videos offering advice to her viewers, and it is through these videos that Burnam is able to uncover the themes and problems shared by her fellow classmates. By creating videos, Kayla is able to inhabit the persona she wants, rather than the one she has. She discusses major life themes such as growth and personal identity. These videos offer the film a unique mechanism through which Burnam reveals the inner struggles and wishful thoughts with which Kayla is embattled.

Much of the lighting, especially in Kayla’s bedroom, is minimal, using the cold harsh light of Kayla’s iPhone to illuminate her face, revealing the animalistic paranoia of teenagers’ incessant and mindless scrolling of social media. In moments like this, when Kayla is in a fever dream, lost in the sea of feeds and facades, the film’s score surges like a rush of blood to the head. Peripherals begin to fade as the camera pulls closer and closer toward the phone, beckoning Kayla and viewers alike to lose themselves in its expanse. As the score reaches one of its dramatic zeniths, it becomes impossible to see anything but the phone, to hear anything but the music that pulses through the temples. 

Then, cutting through the noise and commotion, snapping Kayla out of the trance, is her father (Josh Hamilton) peeking through her bedroom door, engulfed in the warm yellow light of the hallway, bringing her back to reality with a gentle and sincere smile. And just as quickly as it began, the hypnotic nature of the phones lure fades, leaving nothing but the cold, white light of the screen revealing the pained grimace that had defined Kayla’s expression.

Though the film is consistently awkward and often cringey enough to send a shiver up any viewer’s spine, the difficulties are not unlike what teenagers today experience. Every mundane social situation is heightened to its most extreme, creating scenarios in which the audience begins to feel the pressures and paranoia felt by Kayla herself. Social interactions are a show, a performance, and everyone is trying to put on a good act. Kayla is constantly surrounded by a sea of individuals who see her not as she is, but as she presents herself to be. As Kayla states in her YouTube video about putting yourself out there, “people may not know the real you, they only know the you that you put on.” So, in the face of all of this acting and falsity, it is the few individuals who are honest with Kayla, who see her as she truly is, that stand out against the white noise that is millennial society. 

This film pushes us to surround ourselves with people that we can be honest with, people we can be ourselves around. In a time where likes and retweets provide us with numerical values of our online self-worth, “Eighth Grade” challenges us to change, not for others, but strictly for ourselves. Self-worth is not something that can be given to us, it is something we have to give ourselves. Change and growth are necessary, but are still frightening and require courage and strength. Kayla says, accurately so, that “you can’t be brave without being scared.” “Eighth Grade” is a candid work of art that issues a necessary statement to the world: though we are more connected than ever, a disconnect far greater has arisen between ourselves and the people we strive to be.