Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is a Painfully Accurate Masterpiece
“And I’m, I’m really nervous, like, all the time, like, for no reason. Like I’ll be nervous when there’s nothing to be nervous about really. Like, it’s sort of like when you wait in line for a roller coaster and you have that nervous stomach, like I feel like that all the time, like every day, and I don’t ever get that feeling you get after you ride the roller coaster when you feel better. It’s just like I’m waiting in the line all the time.”
Bo Burnham’s screenwriting and directorial debut, Eighth Grade, is littered with choppy, uncomfortable, and brutally honest moments such as this one. Written from the perspective of awkward, insecure, and recently voted “Most Quiet,” eighth grader Kayla, this film is a gut wrenching realization that coming of age isn’t nearly as rewarding when the age is a shitty one.
Eighth Grade is a blast from the past that no modern adult is ready to confront, as it brings to light the strange ins and outs of the middle school social hierarchy while revamping them to the modern technological context. The film’s shy protagonist Kayla finds herself searching for relevance in both the real world and the vast internet world, frequently posting youtube videos about middle school life, fiending for likes on social media, and dejectedly comparing herself to the overwhelmingly powerful images of beauty online. While Kayla struggles with her real world and online personas, we are presented with brutal cases of second hand embarrassment, with countless awkward hallway conversations, the constant practice of cool statements in the mirror, and in one of the most personal moments, a practice make-out session with her hand. Despite relevant comedic relief peppered throughout the film, the reigning tone of the work is still at its’ core awkward, uncomfortable, and recklessly anxious.
Just as fascinating as the main character herself is the complex world that she is surrounded by. Eighth Grade proves captivating and immersive to audiences as most of its’ viewers have never experienced middle school quite in the new-age smartphone context that envelopes it today. In the world that Bo Burnham has brought to life, we see eighth graders constantly on their phones, judging one and other based on internet clout, and universally raised on newer internet phenomena like the vine era and snapchat filters. These elements of the film not only bring more angles of conflict in the film’s narrative, but also immortalize the film as an accurate representation of a moment in time right now.
While viewing this movie in a theater full of college students, I too as a child of the internet found myself both cringing in my seat and erupting with laughter at some of the age-specific in jokes. Although the powerful artistry of this film makes me sad to say this, I can’t help but realize that Eighth Grade, much like puberty, will age very poorly over the years as it becomes less and less relevant to the future audiences. The era-narrow jokes of a middle schooler shouting “Lebraahn Jaames,” during an assembly or the reluctant requesting of boob pictures function as moments that are spot on to younger audiences now, but will slowly lose their accurate punch as time moves on. This is not to reduce any power or message that Bo Burnham delivers, but rather to articulate the unique place that this film has in culture at this very moment.
Despite the clear catering to the internet-age audience, Eighth Grade rings true in many moments that feel universal. Kayla’s interactions with her single dad illustrate this, as they paint a more real world narrative with his honest desire to connect with Kayla and clear age differences that often result in confusion. For example, Kayla’s discovering her Dad secretly checking on her at the mall draw universal pains from both ends, where a young girl is mortified at her overbearing dad, and a worrying father has embarrassed his only child. The rare moments of social success can also be felt on all levels. Kayla’s little victories in the film, both in the social hierarchy of her middle school and at home with her dad, strike as a huge triumph amidst an otherwise rocky and defeating story. Moreover, despite an extremely modern internet context, unfamiliar viewers can still connect strongly through the core themes of this film in insecurity, self discovery, and the need to be heard.
Expecting a lighthearted and upbeat summer flick, the dark underbelly of Eighth Grade took me to a place in my lost middle school memory that I was in no way ready to go to. Despite this surprising trip through time and space, the film brought up feelings and memories that, although repressed until this point, are ones that I’m glad resurfaced. Eighth Grade is a painfully precise journey of little victories, major setbacks, and far more questions raised than answers provided. There are places in filmic history for the sweet and romanticized tales of youth, but Bo Burnham’s creation here is hilarious, strange, heartbreaking, and real. Looking back on my experience in real life and in the theater, I cannot help but smile simply at the fact that I made it out.