Live through the lens of an eighth grader

“Eighth Grade” reveals the inner workings of the 14-year-old mind


Mackenzie Fortino

Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” goes inside the social media world of middle school.

The screen starts off completely black. The audience hears a young voice as the camera pans over to a girl sitting at her desk in her room, delivering a motivational speech to her computer screen about being yourself.

“Hey guys, it’s Kayla! Today’s video is…”

Deep down the girl knew probably nobody would watch the video, just like the many others she had uploaded to YouTube. Yet she hit that record button and started rambling anyway, allowing this to be her outlet.

This scene opens the film “Eighth Grade,” a heartwarming coming-of-age film, written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham and has recently won audience favorite award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The film centers around an introverted teenage girl, Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who struggles with the dangers that eighth grade holds: puberty, cliques, peer pressure and social media addiction. Kayla combats these pressures by uploading motivational videos to YouTube about self-esteem and confidence (something she can hardly obtain herself), although they barely get any views.

Although Burnham realized the film would merit an R-rating, he still didn’t want to sugarcoat the middle school experience. He told Variety, “I just wanted to portray the way kids’ lives are. It didn’t feel like our responsibility to portray the reality that we felt was appropriate for kids.” 

In a perfect world, teenagers would live a PG-13 life, but that’s just not the case. He wrote this film in the most authentic way possible, with a few uncomfortable scenes such as Kayla finding herself alone in the backseat of an older high school boy’s car. All the cringe-worthy scenes in the film are realistic and can resonate with anyone, even those not living out the social experiment that is eighth grade. Everyone understands those weird situations Kayla experiences, because everyone has experienced middle school. It doesn’t matter what generation or technological age a person is from.

“Eighth Grade” focuses completely on the way we judge ourselves, which is exactly the type of portrayal that this generation needs to see. It may seem bizarre that a film about an awkward teenage girl was captured accurately by a 20-something year old male.

Burnham told Indiewire, “I was also doing a lot of stand-up and I was talking about my feelings, and most people that came up to me that understood what I was going through were 14-year-old, 15-year-old girls. Truly, more than men my own age.” 

It seemed to Burnham that it would be weirdly perfect to write the film about not only a teenage girl, but specifically about eighth grade. Middle school is the strangest and most anxiety-filled time in people’s lives, so it would make the most sense for him to express his frustrations with anxiety this way. Burnham projected his emotions onto a 13-year-old female character, which has inspired other adults to understand their feelings in the same way. Whether it sparks old memories they felt from eighth grade or if it sparks current emotions they struggle to understand, it’s powerful that Burnham has made people of all ages relate to an eighth grade girl.

The story is told through Kayla’s mind, so it forces the audience to relieve eighth grade with her. When she sees a cute boy pass by her in the hallway, the audience feels the heart-pounding soundtrack and sees the slow-motion camera zooming in on his face. They can feel Kayla’s emotions so close and personally, and it allows them to relate to those cringe-worthy moments that everyone puts themselves through.

There is no “enemy” or “bully” found in the film other than Kayla herself. She is the one who feels nervous talking to people, and she is the one who struggles to be herself.  Watching Kayla attend a pool party in a bathing suit or simply take hold of the microphone during karaoke makes all of those feelings of eighth grade come rushing back. This film can comfort teenagers as they learn the things they feel growing up are more universal than they understand at the time and sometimes their issues are not as dreadful as they think.

With this film, Bo Burnham has given voice to a generation crippled by technology, who, able to hide behind a device, often can’t find the words to express themselves. Typical teenage films center around drama; however, in “Eighth Grade,” Kayla’s inner battle is the drama.