The key to understanding the film Eighth Grade is to understand its creator, Bo Burnham. I will now engage in some speculative forensic psychology based entirely on having watched some Youtube videos.
Bo Burnham started out as a gangly, nerdy teenager making Youtube music videos for songs he wrote himself that were both unapologetically profane and immensely creative, especially in his use of word play. For instance, his white boy rap Bo Fo’ Sho’, staged in his bedroom while he sat on his unmade bed, contains the line “Did you poop a virgin, cuz that shit is tight.” This was back in the early days of Youtube, when it was still a wild and weird digital ride where you could stumble on these little oddball nuggets of gold by complete happenstance.
Burnham leaned into his awkwardness, kind of making it the centerpiece of his appeal, and eventually parlayed it into a very successful musical comedy career. His act has dug into things like high school social hierarchies as well as the demons of the creative process and the toll it takes on an artist. Always, though, his output has been defined by a deep sensitivity and knowing understanding of what being an outsider feels like, especially in the context of high school.
You can just imagine this kid as a freshman in high school sitting in a corner at lunch writing up lyrically complex raps featuring a panoply of creative poop metaphors, while the children of corporate lawyers threw trash at him. Until that kind of talent was packaged on Youtube and found its market (which it turns out was a big one), hormone-addled teen cliques would probably have had a hard time understanding that they had a genius in their midst.
And I think that is something Burnham probably struggled with - knowing that he was talented and creative, but within the very strange and rather terrifying high school food chain that probably didn’t earn him too much popularity. But it did inform his subsequent creative output, and that is why so much of his work has this kind of raw emotional tone to it that resonates with authenticity. He also understands, probably better than most, how social media is impacting kids, as he himself is a product of the deranged digital ecosystem that can turn a nerdy 16 year old with a guitar into a star.
So all of that is basically just to say that when he wrote and directed the 2018 critical hit Eighth Grade, he brought all of that to the table and it informed the script and the film at every turn. This is obviously a very personal movie (I don’t think he would work on anything that didn’t have some kind of personal angle), and it is shaped by his own experience in middle and high school struggling to fit in and find his niche. In his case, social media actually provided a platform for him to find a receptive audience and validate his talents and weirdness. But few are that lucky (or talented).
The film is pretty simple, really. It’s about an awkward 8th grader named Kayla, in a knock-out performance from Elsie Fisher, who is struggling to figure shit out as she makes the leap from 8th grade to 9th grade. It’s a classic and bitingly honest depiction of teen marshmallow brain, being pulled in so many different directions by your hormones, your peers, your parents, yourself. It’s not really until you get older that you realize how inconsequential all that shit really was, but when you are in it, it all feels so important. And you are in it.
The movie also touches on social media, as Kayla uses a vlogging platform to depict herself as confident and charismatic and strong - all the things she is not in real life. Who knows if her vlog actually had an audience, but the movie is basically asking how healthy it can really be for a teen with self-esteem problems to try and create a false version of herself for consumption by an online audience. What kind of society is it where kids feel compelled to create an image of what they think people want and then blast it out online, driven by a desperate need to be validated? It’s kind of haunting, when you think about it.
But mostly, the film just stays close to the ground, depicting various aspects of Kayla’s life such as her loving doofus of a father (who, in a twist no one saw coming, is ALSO trying to figure this parenting shit out at the same time his daughter is trying figure this “being a teenager” shit out!), her budding sexuality, her attempts to be cool and also be herself. All of this feels real.
Like, almost too real. Full disclosure: I hated high school. I had a pretty great middle school experience, but then it as all downhill from there. I found the social ecosystem of high school just made me absolutely miserable, and it was pretty awful and awkward time for me. So much so that I stopped going to high school in 10th grade and went straight into early intake college. I am now about to finish my PhD, so don’t let anyone tell you not to drop out of school, kids! They are probably terribly mediocre adults who hate their lives and look back with resentment on their wasted dreams.
And this movie just perfectly captured the emotional soup of that time in your life, when nothing makes any fucking sense and the more you try to figure it or fit in or be different, the harder it gets and the stupider and more ostracized you feel. I think this film perfectly captured all the emotional and social chaos that comes with being a teenager, added some commentary about how social media makes things even more complicated these days, and still wound up telling a touching coming of age story that was funny and felt real without being treacly. The film was so real, and brought back so many memories for me of that time in my life, that I needed to slam a few beers before I watched it to make it go down easier (and I don’t mean that in a bad way).
In conclusion, this is a fucking great film. It really resonated with me, and I look forward to Bo Burnham’s next project.