Eighth Grade: A Portrait of the Awkward Entrance into Teendom

Film Review: American comedian Bo Burnham’s debut feature film Eighth Grade depicts the knotty, small-scale hellscape of middle school, focusing on the experience of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) – a self-aware yet intensely self-conscious teen – during her last week in eighth grade.

By REBECCA TOOK

If a tree falls in the woods and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a teenage girl’s YouTube videos get no views, does she even exist? American comedian Bo Burnham’s debut feature film Eighth Grade depicts the knotty, small-scale hellscape of middle school, focusing on the experience of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) – a self-aware yet intensely self-conscious teen – during her last week in eighth grade.

Eighth Grade is a film which emerged from, and revolves around, YouTube. Nominated for a Golden Globe, its zeitgeisty appeal is balanced by a thoughtful script which isn’t afraid to lean into the awkwardness of the age. Verbal manifestations of anxiety – speech peppered with ‘um’ and ‘like’ – saturate her vlogs, which unfailingly end with the near-proverbial phrase “like and subscribe” (despite her near non-existent audience). Social media is the puppeteer in this film: an additional character which operates visibly, yet almost without our full comprehension.

We see Kayla get up in the morning for school, carefully applying her makeup as advised by a YouTuber she watches. She dabs and smudges, covering the cystic markers of puberty. Then we see her climb back into bed – face beaten, hair brushed – and take a ‘woke up like this’ selfie, adorned with a carefully-selected Snapchat filter. It’s a cringe-inducing scene, made all the more so for its relatability. When Kayla stops recording for her YouTube channel, not only does her ‘real’ self step out from behind that camera but so do ours, in all their [former] awkward glories.

There are stomach-churning silences and slow, protracted glances which leave the audience urging Kayla to look away, or to speak, or to please not say anything more. Lulls in conversation are intrinsically uncomfortable and, given no alternative, we will often push ourselves through that awkwardness barrier to fill the painfully quiet gap.

Burnham seems to have harnessed the power of the cringe to push an authentic narrative – rather than a narrative of ‘authenticity’.

Through Kayla, Burnham illustrates the universal struggle between our own competing personalities. How being quiet in some situations does not make you ‘quiet’, and performing a socially prescribed ‘coolness’ doesn’t actually make you cool. Ultimately the film suggests that projecting our own insecurities onto an outside source can create a false narrative about how others view us, which isn’t necessarily the truth.

Kayla reminds me of Olive in Little Miss Sunshine: articulate yet awkward, she is a social outsider who is nevertheless the coolest in a group of primped girls, equally self-conscious but in different ways. Yet the film is intensely compassionate: tricky ground to occupy in a film dealing with the micro-politics of middle school.

However, having a male director/screenwriter of a film about a teenage girl could challenge the film’s claim of credibility. Moments when Kayla sees her crush are overwrought: throbbing music plays, the camera voyeuristically slowing on his pubescent body. This gag was repeated too often, putting the audience in an uncomfortable position. Though it is attempting to depict a teenage girl’s obsession, such moments felt played from the perspective of a leering teenage boy. A radical reassertion of gendered stereotypes, or a misguided transference of perspective? Having actors of the actual ages of the characters is refreshing – Stacey Dash was 28 when playing 17-year-old Dionne in Clueless, Rachel McAdams 26 when playing 16-year-old Regina George in Mean Girls – however, the filmmaker should be mindful of how their teenage bodies are being depicted for a mixed-age audience.

The fact that Kayla is an only child allows more space for the angst of growing to shine through: there isn’t a mother to battle with, there are no siblings to give advice or mediate the tension of teenhood. There are fewer of the counseling conversations typical of other ‘growing up’ films. As a single parent, Kayla’s father navigates through seas of silence as he attempts to best support, parent and guide his (no longer) child. Sometimes the right words can’t be found, are rebuked with an aggravated yell, or are quickly batted away with the back of an eye-roll. But as her parent, he keeps trying – and keeps getting it wrong – until one tender, cathartic scene, when he gets it so beautifully right.

Eighth Grade feels less designed for the audience it portrays. Nor is it designed for those who have relatively recently emerged from the chaos of teenhood, the strength of our own cringe-worthy memories too vivid to override. Instead, this film feels like a much-needed reminder to parents of teenagers of the pains of the age, demonstrating how to lead the way through the swamp of adolescence with compassion and unburdened care.

Rebecca Took is a Master’s Student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Amsterdammer.