Trauma reigns supreme in the cesspit that is middle school (anyone who says they enjoyed those years are bold faced liars). With hormones raging through the halls like a plague and the need to be cool and independent an unquenchable desire, middle school was a special kind of torture for anyone who wasn’t part of the social hierarchy.
Most movies about school capture the miseries of the social jungle, rarely do they capture the simplicity of it all. Comedian, Youtuber, and now director, Bo Burnham, does just that with his feature debut, Eighth Grade. Burnham doesn’t try to shock audiences; he knows he’s not Harmony Korine or Todd Solondz. He simply wants viewers to know this lonely 13-year-old who is desperately trying to find herself.
Eighth Grade follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a shy teenage girl who so desperately wants to be cool. Her tendency to keep her eyes fixated on the floor and keeping and the inability to start a conversation gets the (literal) award for “most quiet girl,” which is the most humiliating award anyone could get. At home, Kayla lets her inner self soar, recording Youtube videos on a channel that no one watches about how to be confident and ends every show with an equally cringe inducingly enthusiastic “Gucci!” Her father (Josh Hamilton) is a never-ending river of affection, constantly trying to reach out to his daughter but, as any teenager does, she drowns him out with technology.
Burnham approaches his actors with a documentarian approach. The dialogue, interactions, and observations make for one of the most authentic middle school experiences. Teachers are saying “lit” to relate to students, kids are sniffing sharpies, and there’s even a school shooting drill. Audiences may cringe at times, but it’s only because they remember all of the ridiculous antics that transpire here or, more specifically, they remember being Kayla. For someone who is a little more than a decade older than the subjects of the film, it’s astonishing that Burnham is able to get such realistic performances out of the main actors. It’s not just the teenage interactions that succeed; Kayla and Mark’s father-daughter relationship is strained at first, but after a dramatic scene with them, Kayla realizes that her dad is pretty cool.
Burnham brilliantly captures the essence of the modern middle school population, a generation that today is wholly overtaken by social media. The “mean girls” of the film aren’t stereotypically mean and instead they’re just too entranced with their phones to care. It’s such an exciting subject for Burnham to take on, especially since he got his start on Youtube but Burnham isn’t necessarily making an anti-technology PSA; he’s merely examining how it currently plays a role in this modern society.
Burnham doesn’t revel in Kayla’s misery or exploit her for shock value. She does have her own share of heartache, but plenty of moments of happiness too. She follows her videos’ advice and starts to assert herself, and in turn, finds a friend who she can be comfortable around.
After watching the film, my friend told me that she doesn’t think that this film will age well. According to her, its reliance on current social media technologies will make it fade into obscurity but it doesn’t matter about the brands he’s using; kids will always find a new brand to obsess over. The primary focus is Kayla’s journey to overcome her own insecurities and look beyond the smartphone for a new beginning. To put it in Kayla’s terms, it’s so “gucci.”