YouTube comedian-turned internet sensation-turned filmmaker Bo Burnham recently described his directorial debut as “an attempt to represent the kids who live their lives online.” To describe Eighth Grade (2018) as merely an attempt would be a true disservice. Burnham feature debut is a exquisitely insightful look into the agony of growing up in the age of the internet.
Hailed by many as a strikingly accurate portrayal of what it means to be a Gen Z-er, Burnham prompts an in-depth conversation about the plight of ‘post-millennials’ who, in his own words, have been “forced by a culture they did not create to be conscious of themselves at every moment.” Yet for all for it’s cutting cultural commentary, Eight Grade succeeds because Burnham has created a universally human story; one that gives you all the laughs and all the feels.
Painfully shy Kayla Day (played by rising star Elsie Fisher) is fast approaching the last week of middle school. In the real world, none of her peers know anything about her; only enough to vote her ‘most quiet’ in class. Online however, Kayla lives a second life. Posting selfies and self-help videos with titles like ‘How to Be Yourself’ and ‘Putting Yourself Out There,’ Kayla has a sparkling online persona despite having no audience.
Kayla’s dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) is charmingly devoted to his daughter and thinks she’s a sensation. He has every confidence that she could fit in with that ‘cool crowd’ she idolises. However, when the opportunity arises to attend a class pool party through a parent’s invitation, Kayla finds herself terrifyingly out of her depth and very far away from her sunshine-y online persona.
There are a number of trials that Kayla must face that leave us watching between our fingers, putting us on high alert for any potential humiliation she might face at the hands of her peers. But Burnham defuses these crisis situations, gracefully subduing our expectations.
Instead, Burnham entangles these little flights of terror with reality, which is where the film really hits the nail on the head. One particular scene melds a school-shooting drill with a rather cringey instance of intense flirting that could have erred towards a little too creepy had it not been so funny.
One of the most touching aspects of the film are the video time capsules created by Kayla, one made by her nine year old self to her current self and one we see her video for her future eighteen year old self to watch back. Despite her outward IRL persona, Kayla gives a remarkably upbeat perspective and optimism about the future; a far-cry away from what any Mail reading middle-aged suit might say if you asked their opinion on the ‘youth of today.’
It’s often millennials who consider themselves the ‘down-trodden’ generation but we forget that there are a much younger generation coping not only with declining opportunity for home-ownership and limited job prospects, but also with the pressures of living a life almost exclusively on social media.
And yet, Burnham, a twenty-something, white, male millennial, manages to perfectly capture the thoughts and experiences of a self-conscious teenage girl. Eighth Grade is note perfect from beginning to end, without discrediting Kayla’s experiences, as many a teen drama has done in the past, to be trivial fantasies.
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