Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” Depicts Authentic Girlhood Experience
When I was in eighth grade, I looked like this (that's me on the right!), and remember finding the condition of my skin, listening to my favorite band (the Jonas Brothers), and daydreaming about my current crush in the utmost of importance. I also remember feeling bad about the fact I looked nothing like how girls my age were represented on screen. I was not skinny and talented like Hannah Montana or bubbly and friendly like iCarly. Instead, I was overdeveloped and anxious, and wishing to be anything else. This character was not accessible in mainstream media, not until the release of Eighth Grade.
Interestingly enough, this understanding of girl-to-womanhood comes from a male mind. The film is the directorial debut of comedian Bo Burnham. Over the course of about one hundred minutes, we follow Kayla Day (a brilliant Elsie Fisher) on her last week of eighth grade as she prepares to transition to high school. Although Kayla records advice videos for her YouTube channel, she is often more in need of advice than in a position for giving it. Awkward, “Most Quiet” via superlatives votes, and floundering, Kayla wants to live up to her sixth-grade ideals of by now being “the coolest girl in the world,” or at least for someone other than her dad to be her friend.
There are many uncomfortable moments throughout the film (it is marketed as depicting “the most awkward year of your life”) from a dreaded pool party to Kayla’s Googling “how to give a good blowjob.” It is in its awkwardness where the film thrives, providing the audience with the ultimate catharsis as you witness moments you likely experienced yourself growing up, and will therefore equally cringe, laugh, and emphasize with Kayla. The film’s ability to do this is the likely culprit behind its stellar performance at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and positive box office numbers in its limited release thus far. The success is not from a well-developed plotline, of which it sorely lacks. While a lot is happening to Kayla, not much is happening or changing throughout the film in general, and it seems without ideal destination where everything can resolve. This is reflective of life, but it is not interesting. The film’s drama, therefore, is completely dependent upon creating moments of seat-shifting discomfort while being able to keep the audience’s attention without wearing out the shock value.
At times it can be more challenging to hop on board with this strategy, especially when generational differences come into play. This is the case with the constant pressures of social media. Kayla cracking the screen on her iPhone is just as impactful (if not more so) than when we learn her mother abandoned the family not long after her birth. When this element of the film is highlighted within a series of scenes where the students in Kayla’s class are participating in an active shooter drill and choose to occupy themselves by sitting under their desks and playing mobile games until it is over, you might wonder where the values lie in this generation if taking selfies is as important as discovering yourself, but this is never explored so much as it is presented like a piece of bubble gum to chew on until it loses the flavor and we move on to something more compelling.
Overall, however, the tactics of the film are successful in an authentic understanding of growing up today because it is unafraid to show teenagers in the way they actually look and depict them as they truly behave, which is something Hollywood has been shying away from due to its unsexiness for years.
One particularly poignant moment involves Kayla in the backseat of a car with a high school boy. He makes attempts to hook-up with her and, completely bewildered, Kayla tries to navigate how to turn him down, a process that concludes with her rampant apologies and his guilt trip about wanting her “first” to be something “nice.” Kayla and the boy never kiss or have any physical contact yet it is a completely accurate portrayal of the way most young girls are introduced to sex and why then it can be something negative or fearful. Critics have explored the scene because of its ability to show the audience the danger Kayla is in without Kayla fully comprehending the situation. Still, the pain Kayla experiences from the pressure of the situation is in the same wheelhouse as the more blatant and obvious kinds of assault she was likely taught about in her sexual education course, yet this more common experience is always left off the syllabus. Burnham views it as “culture’s failure of these kids,” but it really could speak to the failure of society as a whole for educating young women about sexual rights across decades.
While some may argue that there have been many films that dive into the terrible moments we face while growing up (like Say Anything, Sixteen Candles, or Lady Bird),there are few that have done so with the tender age group of early teenagers trying to find their footing in the world, and almost none that touch upon the added trouble social media and terrorism threats bring to the picture. That is why Eighth Grade feels revolutionary and why it is disastrous that its R-rating will hinder its target audience from seeing it, seemingly being shielded from a cinematic portrayal of what they will experience every day, regardless. Personally, I would rather my teenager go to the cinema and see an authentic depiction of themselves to understand, as Kayla finally does, that are variations of ourselves are special in their own ways (and if we do not like them, they are also fleeting) instead of looking everything up on phones, tablets, and laptops in a plastic, photoshopped universe. If the MPAA believes the most dangerous things teens could be doing is seeing this film, perhaps they should check their internet search history.
By: Rachel A.G. Gilman