This weekend I saw Eighth Grade, the first film written and directed by stand-up comedian and former teen YouTube sensation Bo Burnham. I knew it would be funny, but I didn’t expect it to be as emotionally affecting as it turned out to be.
In an excellent profile for the New Yorker, Burnham described the main character, Kayla:
“I did not set out to write a movie about eighth grade,” Burnham told me one afternoon in May. “I wanted to talk about anxiety—my own anxiety—and I was coming to grips with that….Anxiety makes me feel like a terrified thirteen-year-old,” Burnham explained. Because his own anxiety set in later, he didn’t use himself as a model. He watched hundreds of teen vlogs; the girls tended to talk about their souls, and the boys about Minecraft, so he made his protagonist a girl.
Burnham excels at portraying the hormonal anxiety of middle school through eighth-grader Kayla Day. From her opening vlog on “being yourself” to encounters with her crush and her first pool party. The film drags the audience through the most socially terrifying moments of adolescence.
It reminded me of a recent essay I read on McSweeny’s, “Welcome to Anxiety Dream High School”:
Congratulations on your arrival at Anxiety Dream High School, home of the Crippling Self-Doubts! As it turns out, you never actually graduated high school, went to college, or had any success at all. So on behalf of the faculty, staff, and everyone you’ve ever disappointed, I’d like to welcome you back, once again. Though certain locations will be familiar, our shadowy and ever-shifting campus can be a real challenge to navigate.
Eighth Grade transported me, and the friends I saw it with, just like a nightmare. I laughed, I cringed and at one point the whole audience called out “No! Don’t do that!”
Part of our visceral response could be attributed to the visual language Burnham borrows from horror films. Long tracking shots follow Kayla in her most embarrassed moments. Extreme close-ups on her face and eyes during panic attacks make Instagram DMs seem like murder threats.
Anna Meredith’s synth-driven score underscores the traumatic moments in sharp bursts. While soft pads and arpeggios lift up the tender scenes where Kayla progresses. And the bass drop whenever her crush walks by gets a solid laugh every single time.
Burnham plays into the universal social suffering of middle school. However, he also places the film in the present day to take a stance on social media. He’s not trying to take us back in time, but he does voice some concern about the power we give to our technology.
“I don’t know. I think there are probably certain elements about social media that we’ll look back on in the way we look back on smoking, where we’ll be, like, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t all have been doing that.’ The equivalent of ‘My doctor smoked’ will be, like, ‘My shrink had a Twitter.’ ”
Kayla’s “advice videos” serve as a sort of social crutch, keeping her from reaching out to the world around her. She slowly realizes over the course of the film that advice is only good if its acted upon and technology is at its best when it facilitates real interaction.
For a debut film, Eight Grade is ambitious and extremely affecting. I think it will easily go down as one of the best teen movies of the decade. And I can’t wait to see what Burnham does next.