Comedian Bo Burnham writes and directs his debut feature Eighth Grade which channels the well-trodden components of the coming-of-age genre, with timely commentary on today’s multifaceted and isolating forms of online communication. The film shines in confronting us with excruciating awkwardness that is both necessary in the ever relatable challenges of fitting in and harrowing in the overwhelming and uncompromising presence of social media.
Thirteen-year-old Kayla (an astounding performance from Elsie Fisher) is about to graduate middle school. Although she maintains an active presence online and posts her own vlogs with advice on confidence and social anxiety, it is clear from the get-go that she is incapable of adhering to her own teachings in the real world. The crippling approach to self-image makes experiences such as casual small talk, attempts to navigate the world of crushes and pretending to know about sex, all the more painful in the contradictions between her online persona and the real Kayla.
As someone who grew up amidst an all-encompassing generational shift in online chatting and self-promotion, I found myself squirming in my seat in recognition of my own memories of isolation and social anxiety. For Kayla, her generation has always co-existed with this phenomenon. She has grown up surrounded by screens, data feeds and constant communication to both everyone and no-one. This presents us with worrying notions of how the social landscape has changed completely in regards to interacting with others. In my opinion, this is where Eighth Grade stands out as a modern examination of coming to terms with oneself in an age when attention is indefinitely divided. Kayla’s father (Josh Hamilton) clearly struggles with her dependence upon social media – yet he remains patient, caring and unrelentingly supportive. Though we have scenes of Kayla unfairly berating him (often for no reason at all), we are rewarded with touching scenes showcasing his immeasurable concern, love and admiration for his daughter. We feel his frustrations in his desperate attempts to try and understand her generation whilst reinforcing the fundamental respect he has for her.
Anna Meridith’s score caters perfectly to the dichotomy between the thirteen-year-old point of view and the objective stance of the viewer. As we see the male winner of the “best eyes” award from the perspective of an infatuated Kayla, the electronic score practically assaults us with the intensity of her crush. Complimented by the use of slow motion, we are fully aware of the hold that this young man has over Kayla before we cut to a more objective wide shot of a self-assured little boy swaggering across the classroom. The techno assault cuts out, drastically undermining the intensity of her infatuation and brings us back to objective reality where we are charmingly reminded of the fleeting and flippant nature of teenage crushes.
There are indeed moments of genuine concern over Kayla’s troubled attempts at coming to terms with herself. A private panic attack upon entering a pool party or an instance of manipulative sexual pressure that she is clearly not ready for, are just a few examples of Burnham’s sincere and tangible approach to teenage anxiety. The film never wanders into any exploitative territory in addressing these themes – neither does it shy away from the necessary and invaluable assessments of self that, for better or worse, often come as a result.
The film holds the power of well-made horror in that I spent the majority of the run time with my hands over my eyes and wishing the pain would stop for Kayla. The heartwarming elements (of which there are many) serve to remind us that pre-teen politics are wholly superficial in their nature and meaningful self-worth can be moulded by positive reinforcement from those who like you without compromise.
Whilst Jonah Hill’s equally brilliant Mid-90’s shines as a personal reflection of what was in nostalgic reference to his generation, Burnham’s film ponders at length on what is in a contemporary assessment of the problematic impact that such technology has on self-esteem. Eighth Grade manages to be both immediate and lasting in its evaluation of timeless coming-of-age struggles. Whether you enjoy social media or hold it in utter contempt, this film is thought-provoking enough to make anyone look up from their phone…if not at least for an hour and a half.