Eighth Grade is a coming-age-of-story about what it’s like to be a young girl in 2018. Naturally, as a man in my 30s I feel qualified to weigh in on this.
Wait. That doesn’t seem quite right, does it?
Yet, it’s the position a lot of critics are currently in with Eighth Grade, a remarkably lovely film, to be sure, and easily one of my favorites of the year so far. Writer-Director Bo Burnham, the 27-year-old multi-hyphenate who first started out on YouTube, has turned his inaugural feature into one of the best-reviewed films of the year. As Variety, however, astutely argued, “The bracing quality of Eighth Grade can’t necessarily be reduced to a common rite of passage that We Can All Relate To. A lot of the folks showering the film with accolades sound like they want to feel younger than they are.”
Yes, Eighth Grade and its story about a shy girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher) and her tortuous final weeks of middle school, from unfortunate pool parties, desperate attempts to land a boyfriend, and one glorious day spent shadowing a high school senior, hits many of the same universal points we can all relate to. Anyone who remembers what it was like to be that age – so unsure of yourself, anxious about becoming a teenager, dealing with acne, simultaneously transfixed by and terrified of looming sexual rites of passage, mortified by your parents who really just want to help, and just being generally awkward about everything – can see themselves in Kayla and empathize with her.
However, there’s also an element of Eighth Grade which persuasively shouts: “Yeah, all that shit you remember from when you were that age? It’s soooooo much worse for kids these days. Everything that’s always been bad about being that age is magnified times a thousand now. To thine own self be true, obviously, but have you seen Instagram?” This, Variety noted, is “the first movie to capture, in a major way, the teenage experience of those who have only existed on this planet during the digital era.”
Last year’s Lady Bird, the most obvious comparison, not least of which because the two films share the same producers, was set in the early 2000s and captured a distinct moment in the past, a time when economic uncertainty and the developing war in Iraq began shifting our expectations for the future.
Eighth Grade captures now. Its protagonist has a little-watched YouTube vlog, which is the only place she allows herself to project confidence, even though it’s completely faked. She first got SnapChat when she was in just the 5th grade, a fact some higher schoolers she later befriends find horrifying. Her nights are spent obsessively searching social media, which Burnham persuasively depicts as being an almost religious experience for her, scored as it is to Enya’s “Oronico Flow (Sail Away)” during one especially effective montage. Much of what she sees on Instagram leads her to unhealthy behaviors and leaves her already fragile self-confidence in shatters.
Burnham, who started posting videos from his suburban Boston home when he was just 15, is clearly drawing somewhat from his own experiences. However, much has changed since he first started in the online game.
“The internet asked way less deep questions of you [back then],” Burnham told The Hollywood Reporter. “YouTube: You have a funny video? Post it. MySpace: Post a picture and list your interests. Now it’s like, Twitter and Instagram: What do you look like? What do you think? What do you look like? What do you think? Every second. Those are base, deep questions.”
Kayla thus had to be born from hours of research Burnham spent watching vlogs and YouTube videos from today’s middle schoolers. For example, Kayla’s painfully stilted style of speaking, featuring enough “ums” and “likes” to give a speech teacher a stroke, comes straight from her real-world counterparts. “Every kid in a movie is so snappy, and they know what they’re saying, and that just rings so false for me,” Burnham argued. “I didn’t say a complete sentence until I was 20.”
Vulture, wondering how true any of this actually rings for today’s kids, found a couple of 9th graders – two girls, two boys – to survey. Asked about Eighth Grade’s depiction of social media, one of the girls argued, “The part where the boy is talking about sending nudes, that’s so real. That happens so much. It’s so bad. I feel like guys in middle school don’t how to have a relationship because they’re so young that they don’t even bother at all.”
Another chimed in: “There’s a lot of pressure to look skinny and perfect and pretty [on Instagram], and I personally don’t think that it’s healthy. There are high standards for beauty, and when you’re expected to look a certain way in your posts online, it’s a lot of stress.”
When asked if they’d offer Kayla any advice they all echoed exactly what the high school student she shadows repeatedly tells her: stop worrying so much about it. “I think she’s going to be a lot happier in high school,” said one. “I think she’ll be fine, because middle school, from high school, you wouldn’t think that much would change. But it changed a lot,” offered another.
What’s tragic is thanks to the MPAA no actual eighth grader is old enough to see this movie and hear those encouraging words, at least not unless their parent agrees to take them to an R-rated movie. Since Eighth Grade includes the word “fuck” 5 times, the MPAA shackled the film with an R (the cut-off is 1 – say ‘fuck” once and you can get by with a PG-13, anything more than that is an automatic R). Those of us old enough to remember a pre-internet life can praise Eighth Grade all we want, but this is a movie which deserves to be seen by those most in need of its message.
That’s why for one night only, A24, Eighth Grade’s distributor, is hosting a “No-Rating-Enforced” screening in all 50 states. As IndieWire summarized, “The studio partnered with one theater in every state across America for the screenings, which will allow eighth-grade students and teenagers below 18 years old to see the movie on the big screen without needing parental guidance.”
Here’s a link to the complete list of participating theaters, which includes plenty of big chain locations (like AMC, Regal, and Cinemark) in addition to the more expected Alamo Drafthouse and arthouse venues.