Few people look back and remember their preteen years fondly. Still, as you get older, the rose colored glasses come on and the memories become tinged with nostalgia. It’s easy to forget the tiny moments that felt huge back then. For those of us who have forgotten what it feels like to be thirteen years old, 2018’s Eighth Grade forces us to remember. It’s been a few years since I was an awkward, perpetually sweaty preteen but Eighth Grade grabbed me by my ankles and dragged me back in.
Writer-director, Bo Burnham avoids the glossy lens of nostalgia, settling in on nail-biting realism. Instead of feel-good moments that remind you of the sweet innocence of youth, Burnham orchestrates cringe-fueled sequences that make you laugh because you remember how horrible it was. The film follows our young protagonist, Kayla, in her last week of eighth grade. Kayla shuffles through the hallways with her head down, shoulders slouched, and then goes home to make inspirational videos, teaching confidence to an audience of no one. For many, Kayla’s painful shyness is a reflection of their younger selves. As we watch Kayla attempt to insert herself into different social situations with her peers, we are reminded of the fear of rejection at our own ‘pool party’ scenario.
Elsie Fisher is transformative as Kayla – she feels authentic to the bone. Her performance and the ‘too close for comfort’ filmmaking draw the audience into Kayla’s world. As she scans the internet – lit only by the light of her phone screen – images of Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat are reflected onto her face showing the landscape of adolescence in 2018. The moments of the film are so experiential and visceral that we are immediately invested in her struggles. When she has a panic attack, we’re right in the center of it. Her problems become our problems, her anxieties are our anxieties; and similarly, her hopes are our hopes. The use of extreme close-ups builds the connection between the audience and Kayla thereby solidifying Kayla as the empathetic center. Even though not everyone can relate to having Instagram in middle school, Eighth Grade translates this experience into everyone can understand. It’s incredible to have this representation of young women as universal because the default perspective of film is so often male. Everyone is expected to adapt to the perspective of the straight, white male hero, but there shouldn’t be gatekeeping over the human condition. The subjective experience of a 13-year-old girl is important and can hold emotional depth that is relatable.
This sincere representation of teenage girls is important in a culture that often makes thirteen-year-old girls the butt of the joke. Their interests are the subject of mockery and things targeted at young girls (YA novels, boy bands, teen romance movies) are harshly criticized by people outside the audience. For instance, you have to think that part of the negative response to Twilight was due in part to it being popular among teenage girls. As a former thirteen-year-old girl, seeing Justin Bieber posters in Kayla’s room stirred something inside of me, it was like seeing a ghost. Everyone has ‘that thing’ they loved as a thirteen-year-old that was a little goofy but was integral to their growing up. To feature a thirteen-year-old girl in control of her narrative offers validation for this experience – a reassurance that it’s okay to like the things that you like. This is the backdrop of real life that makes it feel true.
Girls are held to a higher standard than their male peers based on perceived maturity. They’re subjugated to criticism while facing the pressures of what the rest of society thinks a girl should be. They’re forced to walk a tightrope of discovering themselves, while also performing the version of themselves that they see in the media. I remember being thirteen and being told not to say ‘like’ because it didn’t make me sound smart, and like I was unsure of myself, but as a thirteen-year-old, your brain is buzzing, roughly stringing words together, picking up passing ‘ums’ and ‘likes’ to collect your thoughts. But years later, I now know that the value of that emotion is not diminished even when the delivery isn’t exactly eloquent. Burnham made this a point, and has every kid in the film speaks like an actual kid. Kayla’s videos are articulated the way a thirteen-year-old would speak, but her messages carry weight. Being articulate and having something intelligent to say are not mutually exclusive, and the film is liberating for girls trapped in this space. These kinds of social rules that are imposed onto young girls on how they should act strip them of their agency. Teenage years are supposed to be for exploration and discovery so that they can develop a sense of ‘self’. So, in this respect, Eighth Grade gives autonomy back to Kayla as she reframes her own life in the form of her YouTube videos. Her videos are fantastical projections of the life she imagines for herself. One where she’s cool, confident, with tons of friends. Her descriptions are fake, but the emotion behind it is authentic. Kayla desires a validation that transcends beyond thirteen-year-old girls. Her plight speaks to anyone who has ever felt lonely or anxious.
“You probably don’t want any advice from some dumb eighth grader or whatever.”Kayla (Eight Grade)
Not only is Kayla the one showing us her world, but she is helping us to navigate it. Kayla is not just the owner of her story, but she is in the position to teach us, the audience, how to deal with these emotions. This representation of young female agency is so important because it shows that young women can have universal stories too. This is not just a story about the eighth grade. It’s about the internet and anxiety and pretending, and it is this emotional basis that resonates with people of all ages, even more so with the ever-present shadow of social media. Bo Burnham has said on numerous occasions that he did not set out to write about a thirteen-year-old girl. Instead, he was trying to reflect on the way he felt in present day and his current relationship with the internet, and it was this thought that made me feel like I related to Kayla right now at age twenty-one. Twenty Nineteen for me means my last semester of college, and I feel like a nervous eighth grader all over again. The world I’m about to enter after I graduate is so terrifying, it feels so much different then what I signed up for four years ago. I’m not sure if the world changed or if I just became aware of it, but watching Eighth Grade made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my anxiety; what I’m going through isn’t a singular experience. Though we are in different places in our lives, Kayla’s words meant a lot to me.
“Just ‘cause things are happening to you right now doesn’t mean that they’re always gonna happen to you.”Kayla (Eight Grade)
Eighth Grade brings humanity to a group that is so often ignored and not taken seriously. Teenagers, especially young women, more than anything want to be seen as people. In 2019, social media seems to only be increasing a supposed generational gap as adults claim to not understand these kids who have grown up inside of the Internet Machine. But Eighth Grade shows us the humanity in this experience. Everyone is nervous and struggling to exist online, but it will be thirteen-year-old girls that reframe this experience and add meaning. The life of an eighth-grade girl should be an epic story because her experience is just big as anybody’s and her story can be universal. Kayla has things to teach me and I am so happy to listen. Gucci 👌🏽
Written by Thalia Castro
Thalia Castro (She/Her) is a soon-to-be graduate of Rutgers University, but don’t ask her about her plans after graduation. When she’s not crying about the future, she’s probably watching Gravity Falls for the twelfth time. She is a lover of all storytelling but her favorite genre has to be coming of age films. Some of her interests include painting, watching video essays on YouTube and making lists.