Bo Burnham understands better than most what it’s like to be a lonely kid trying to find the joys of online invisibility in the real world, and with Eighth Grade, has taken a sledgehammer to the outdated myth that high school is the worst part of growing up. High school is confusing, sure, but it’s nothing compared to the three year caravan of misery through halls of kids carrying SpongeBob USB drives and horny teens begging for Snapchats.
Middle school is the real hell, and Kayla (a truly incredible Elsie Fisher) feels this in more ways than one. Try as she might to force her YouTube-curated confidence into actual courage, she is lost in a sea of cool kids with their lives sorted out and Instagram followers apparently built in. As her last day of eighth grade approaches, we get a glimpse of a true American adolescence in the Twitter era. Despite her young age, she feels worn out and hopeless, and Burnham doesn’t hold back from showing us the profound melancholy she creates for herself while trying to fit in. As Kayla ignores her dad’s attempts to relate at the dinner table and her school’s ‘It’ girl shuns her from the “in” crowd, she sinks deeper into social alienation, unable to connect her charismatic inner world to the world outside.
For all the unpleasantness created by technology in the film, Burnham never talks down to his young characters or resorts to Millennial-bashing. What’s most formally fascinating about the film is the amount of time it devotes to watching characters looking at screens, something often considered too distancing and unengaging. Maybe this rule has simply played itself out, now that screens saturated our lives to the point of consuming almost a third of teens’ days. Regardless, Burnham deftly counteracts the screen time with shots of Elsie, alone in her dark bedroom, with nothing other than her laptop’s glow keeping her company as she scrolls and scrolls through endless content. When we see her at school, headphones shielding her from the social white noise around her, it registers as a sort of scroll through live, missed interactions.
The screen time justifies itself in reflecting how Kayla chooses to spend her free time. She views YouTube makeup tutorials and tries on of Snapchat filters, clueing us into the insidiously dysmorphic effects such technologies can have, a problem later paralleled when Kayla nervously navigates preparing for a pool party.
The only other film that comes to mind which has used screens as astutely is Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper (2016), in which Kristen Stewart is haunted by mysterious text requests from an anonymous number. As in that film, Elsie’s technology looms over her existence – a ghost in the form of her tragically underviewed YouTube channel, wherein she doles out life advice she might want to consider following herself.
Fisher and Burnham, whose success grew from playful YouTube skits filmed in his bedroom to a veritable stand-up career, conceive a character so authentic, it’s hard to believe the film isn’t entirely autobiographical. This is an uncommonly assured debut feature (and lead performance), and though it sometimes feels jammed with jokes that halt the flow of the story, is nevertheless a coming-of-age success.
As Burnham mentioned during a Q&A at the film’s New England premiere in April, it “allows a young girl to be a conduit to emotions usually reserved for lonely New York comedians or male poets in the woods.” Perhaps the democratization of cyberspace was all that was needed for a light to be shone onto a subset of childhood (and womanhood) that is often cynically targeted, but rarely understood.