The film Eighth Grade (2018) is the recent coming-of-age tale about adolescence. The film is the feature film debut of Bo Burnham, comedian and YouTuber. What the film does masterfully, is capture the anxiety and awkwardness that we all experienced as we transition from childhood to adulthood.
As teens, we often felt unease and discomfort in our changing bodies. The film captures this beautifully. Remember feeling nervous walking into school? Or walking in front of class to make a presentation. Burnham finds a way to bring these feelings to the screen, through an understanding of pacing and deliberate cinematography. He traps us in our middle school classroom, forcing us to relive some of the most anxiety-provoking moments from our youth. He doesn’t do it alone; his filmmaking is accented by a stellar performance from Elsie Fisher who captures feelings of teenage awkwardness and insecurity without even saying a word.
One of the best scenes in the film is when the main character Kayla shows up at a pool party (one she doesn’t want to go to, and isn’t wanted at in the first place). As the camera follows her on her journey from the bathroom to the pool, you would think she was on a march to her execution. Never has a group of thirteen-year-olds at a pool party seemed so terrifying.
Growing up on the cusp of the digital age, technology and social media were a part of my adolescence experience. But my generation was not inundated with it in the way that today’s youths are. Those of us who have passed the threshold into adulthood often have some difficulty relating to the cell-phone generation. We wonder why they don’t understand the basics of human-interaction as they pertain to the art of conversation. We wonder why these people are committed to sharing the intimate details of their lives across social media. Not that far removed from many of them, I still feel culture-shock when trying to converse with them.
The film explores this issue, and is remarkably successful in doing so. This is the first coming-of-age-film for the digital age. The insecurity of teens today is exploited by their devices, as the fake narratives of social media reinforce their self-doubt. We see this. While technology has acted as a social crutch for many of them, it has also stunted their social skills and deteriorated genuine human interaction. We see in the movie how this self-imposed isolation makes personal growth, self-confidence, and social interactions harder to overcome. In the film, Kayla struggles to find her voice and become comfortable within her own skin. She battles with the anxiety ridden quiet girl she is, and the seemingly confident and secure girl she falsely projects through her social media.
The film has a few laughs throughout. They come at the expense of the characters and their own cringeworthy behavior. Like me, you may find yourself the only one laughing out loud in a quiet theater. The humor really depends on how your high-school experience was—you might not find these moments funny. Maybe you’ll even want to consider booking some time with your therapist after the film.
The linchpin of the story hinges on a moving and heartfelt monologue from Kayla’s father later in the film. The film is a refreshing break from the norm, especially in the genre of coming-of-age films. If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, I will share the same advice with you that I received before seeing the film last week – “don’t watch it.” It is better to enter the theater with the vaguest notions of what to expect.
Billy Joel might have said it best with, “the good old days weren’t always good.” When hindsight bias and nostalgia seem to get the best of us, it is easy to only remember the good times. But the film will awaken your darkest fears from adolescence, and remind you of the more awkward parts of growing up. Go see this film for a solid grounding and a healthy does of reality.