Middle school is like the Dark Ages of growing up. It’s a dark time, a low point, that few would ever choose to live through again, when most things are awkward and uncertain and horrible, before the self-discovery and enlightenment (or at least what we might think is enlightenment) of high school. My own middle school years are the least well-documented part of my youth, and I’m not sure if it that’s because not much was going on, because I just wanted to crawl into a hole and pretend I didn’t exist, or because my parents knew I just wasn’t very photogenic. But this same lack of documentation seems to hold true on film. There are countless stories about the coming-of-age that happens in high school, where everything “big” seems to happen, but fewer iconic films about the earlier years. Middle school is a time that maybe we’d all collectively like to forget.
Yet in his debut film Eighth Grade, writer/director Bo Burnham brings all these repressed memories of bad fashion, hopeless crushes, and the crushing weight of being a teenager back to the surface. He channels all that universally relatable cringe and self-loathing into a viscerally real portrait of being a person in today’s world, pushing back against any implicit notion that stories about ordinary young people aren’t worthy of big-screen treatment. The film centers on Kayla Day (played by the incredible Elsie Fisher), who has one week left of eighth grade, which is no less daunting and horrifying than what you’d find in any blockbuster or horror movie. Kayla is known to most of her classmates as the girl who won the “most quiet” yearbook superlative. As she tries to survive the rest of the week and meet her goals of increasing her self-confidence, she captures that sometimes miserable state of uncertainty and instability of identity that I can’t say I’ve fully emerged from today. Each moment is grounded in the specificity and quirks of today’s vocabulary and media, yet still manages to speak to the timeless aspects of being a kid. Every bit of Kayla’s self-doubt is something I’ve felt a hundred times over— whether it’s being afraid to talk to boys or be seen in bathing suit, or feeling worried that I wasn’t “being myself” (whatever that means) or, worse yet, that whatever myself actually was wasn’t good enough.
Burnham’s background in comedy shines through as he shows the existential absurdity of middle school—a bunch of kids together for hours on end, trying to answer the biggest questions of who they are and who they want to be while also trying to learn algebra and world history. It’s refreshing to see kids with frizzy hair, braces and acne, and who talk in an unpolished way. Every flaw seems to be magnified onscreen, but the film also reminds us that all those flaws were there back then—we can’t just pretend like they didn’t exist and that everything was carefree, because everything absolutely wasn’t. Kids can be awesome and insightful, but they can also gross and mean and dumb—and sometimes all of those things at once. Over the course of the week, we follow Kayla as she does regular eighth-grade things: she goes to class, goes on her phone, talks to her dad, and tries to talk to a boy she likes. She also suffers an anxiety attack in the bathroom, worries about whether she’ll make friends in high school, and struggles to express herself fully to those around her.
Elsie Fisher gives a remarkably honest, captivating performance that single-handedly carries almost the entire film. Kayla is often isolated, without a regular group of friends that she hangs out with; many scenes portray her alone in her bedroom, often on her phone or laptop. Even when she is surrounded by kids in the pool or in the school auditorium, there is a profound sense of distance between her and everyone else. She frequently has earbuds in and light from screens flashing across her face, as she watches videos or listens to music (a unique and deftly humorous electronic score by Anna Meredith perfectly punctuates each moment). We’re always with Kayla, always in her head, because in her head is where the film’s real conflict take place. The drama here isn’t about fistfights or cliques at lunch tables—most “bullies” don’t so much insult you to your face as they do just completely ignore you or make you doubt yourself.
Ironically, and intentionally, this heightened sense of isolation shows that Kayla is very much not alone in these struggles. The more time we spend with her, the more we are able to see ourselves in her. As much as we might feel that we’re the only ones who don’t fit in or feel anxious, many others are trying desperately to project a perfect image of themselves online and in real life. Social media does not create, but only magnifies, this compulsion to gain approval from your peers and find connection. Though Eighth Grade is bound to tap into viewers’ nostalgia with its pool parties and trips to the mall, it is unquestionably set in the present. Snapchat and Instagram are everywhere, and the dialogue is peppered with current cultural references to shows like Rick and Morty. Even when Kayla is physically alone, she has her phone or her laptop. There’s this competing tension between wanting to be seen and not wanting to be seen—for people to notice you, but only in the way you want to be noticed. Some might think it is an honor that Kayla even stands enough to get a yearbook superlative, but for her, getting singled out like that is torturous. Another even more uncomfortable instance of unwanted attention comes later in the film, when Kayla is driving in the car with a high school boy who tries to pressure her to take her shirt off. These moments painfully encapsulate the gulf between how you see yourself and how others decide to see you, between what’s in your mind and what actually happens.
The YouTube videos that Kayla makes might, at first, feel representative of a desire for attention. She gives advice on topics like how to be confident and how to be yourself, and ends each video with a call to subscribe and a “Gucci!” But despite what she says, she isn’t making them for the views—they are a place to express herself. Even if the videos go largely unwatched (which they do), they’re her act of self-declaration, shouting into the abyss of the internet even if she can’t speak up at school. Being alone in her room can be freeing, allowing her to finally talk without being interrupted. Maybe she’s performing a bit, but she also speaks in an unedited way, filled with “likes” and “ums.” We see Kayla through the video recording on her screen—not just watching her, but watching how she views herself.
In one of her videos, Kayla what it really means to be “putting yourself out there,” because “where is ‘there’?” Especially considering Burnham’s own rise to fame from YouTube videos still available today, this idea of “putting yourself out there” online reminds us of the way that the internet can immortalize, for better or worse, all the past versions of ourselves. When I started high school, I remember deleting all photographic evidence of my existence between sixth and eighth grade off my Facebook profile, fearful that someone would eventually dig up the embarrassing old photos. There’s an impulse to erase all traces of your younger self, to spare yourself the mortification of reliving the memories. This conversation between past and present self is seen in Kayla’s time capsules—the one that she receives from her past self at the end of eighth grade, and the one that she makes for her future self at the end of high school. The old box of memories, filled with objects like a Playbill, movie ticket stubs, and a SpongeBob flash drive, is burned in her fire pit—Kayla, too, apparently wants to forget. Her life is constantly seen through a lens of documentation, ending the film by recording a message to her high-school self, as if to say: no matter where you are in a few years, don’t forget what all this felt like. Sure, middle school sucks, but it also has its wonderfully bright moments: Kayla lights up while talking on the phone with Olivia, the high school student she shadowed, and laughs over chicken nuggets with Gabe, the cousin of a classmate. Hopefully future Kayla will remember those good things.
After watching, I decided to dig up some of my middle school photos, perhaps feeling a bit nostalgic and a bit masochistic. I found shots of me playing at orchestra concerts, loitering outside the Rite Aid, and, in one of my most inspired moments, dressing up as the circus ringleader in Panic! at the Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” music video for Halloween. Eighth Grade already feels like a memory—like all the memories that it evokes—but it doesn’t let us zoom out just yet, demanding that each frame be felt with a visceral immediacy. Kayla’s sweet, well-meaning father (Josh Hamilton) tells her near the end of the film, “You are so easy to love,” and we know he’s right— Kayla, and this film, are incredibly easy to love. And that’s the power of a movie like Eighth Grade. We get to see kids who look and act like we did, and realize that there’s something loveable about them, and about us back then. Middle school was a big deal, so I should be a little kinder to my past self-—and even if I don’t ultimately come to love the bad haircuts or emo Facebook statuses or sheer quantity of time I spent on Neopets, I might at least start to hate them a little less.
By Katie Duggan
Katie Duggan is studying English at Princeton University. She has lived in New Jersey her whole life so far, and has a love-hate relationship with both the Garden State and the film Garden State. She loves musicals and coming-of-age stories, and her favorite movies include Rushmore, Harold and Maude, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. You can follow her on Instagram @katdug_ or on Twitter @realkatieduggan.