‘Eighth Grade’ on Youth, the Internet, and Digital Age Anxiety

From a cultural perspective alone, there’s a lot about Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade that fascinates me. To put it lightly, it’s simply surreal to witness Burnham – a classic YouTube star turned musical stand-up comedian known for his edgy humor – make his first foray into the film medium as a writer and director. It’s perhaps even more surreal that his debut, an indie dramedy about a pre-teenage girl’s last week of middle school, also happens to be one of the best films of 2018 thus far. Burnham’s behind-the-camera presence is more than just a marketing gimmick, his identity is embedded in the DNA of the narrative. It goes without saying that this film is one that could not have been made even ten, maybe even five years ago.

Whether in consequence of A24’s clever marketing or their inherent legacy as indie distributors, the film has been compared to the likes of Lady Bird. While the sentiment is nice, that implies an entirely different film than Eighth Grade is. Lady Bird and the coming-of-age genre are characterized by throwbacks, sweet self-reflective dramas following a character during a time of challenge, change, and transition in their life. While Burnham’s debut carries over some of those elements, make no mistake – for this is far from a nostalgic piece. In fact, Eighth Grade is a film about the everyday anxieties of the edge of fifteen, but its also about the daily horrors the current generation of kids are living in. While the past and even future are still part of its thematic journey, the predominant focus of Eighth Grade is what is happening now.

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There are two stories in Eighth Grade’s clean and simple narrative. On the surface, this a story about Kayla and her learning how to live with anxiety. How it prevents her from connecting with her fellow classmates, how it strains her relationship with her single father, or how it can make any moment of conflict feel like the end of the world. But there’s also a developing narrative explored in the setting around Kayla – teaching sex ed with modern slang, Instagram/Snapchat beauty standards, browsing Twitter late at night to keep tabs on pop idols, an uncomfortable truth-or-dare game with an older peer, balancing oneself and one’s persona on YouTube, and impending public threats. What kind of world are our kids living in right now? How are they coping in this digital age of information and overexposure?

Burnham’s biggest directorial asset that keeps his debut fresh and new is that he himself has grown up with the internet firsthand. The unique approach and care in portraying the web with honesty pays off in commentary that genuinely feels earned and productive. There are many films out there that are about the toxicity of the internet, but little of them are handled with nuance that Eighth Grade offers. One of the best sequences of the film blends images of Kayla’s nightly routine of scrolling down the feeds of her social media pages. Authenticity lies in how specifically Burnham demonstrates the hardship of living in a digital age.

This is a wild example, but 2011’s ABC TV film, Cyberbully, portrays the internet to be a tool for targeted harassment and specific pain. The protagonist, Emily, gets her computer hacked by her younger brother who uploads crude, sexual posts on her personal blog. At school, she then is harassed by her classmates for the image her brother created and attempts suicide, for the sake of heightened melodrama. This is pretty much the mold for all stories in the media on our relationship with the world wide web, Unfriended, Catfish, Friend Request, etc. Cyberbullying is portrayed as a targeted circumstance that happens to specific kinds of people who are outcasted in real life amongst their peers, and this is far from the social media experience the average person faces.

This is not to say a situation like this can’t happen, but what Eighth Grade understands so well is that the toxicity of the internet exists on a much more micro-level that most people are going to relate to. The self-esteem that Kayla possesses is driven by passive, small gestures and not active swarms of hate. Kayla is not told daily to kill herself, instead, the popular girls block Kayla engaging with them in conversation by retreating to their screens. No one at the pool party calls her ugly, she scrolls down her peers’ Instagrams pages and compares her figure to theirs. Every moment of online engagement adds up and festers into a feeling of isolation.

As a youth who is both struggling with low-self esteem issues and is pretty active on Twitter, these are the emotions I feel daily. The concern over image, the obsession over being “liked”, constantly being stressed out over trying to present the best version of myself. I relate to Kayla because I know what it’s like to grow up with a tool that has given me a lot of good relationships, but a lot of bad energy in my life. As a closeted teenager in high school, having a private Twitter under an alternate persona gave me the freedom to explore and understand my own identity a lot better in a discreet, comfortable space with people across the world who I related to. It also gave me a platform with a following that boosted my voice in a way I did not fully understand.

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Often times, I’ve felt and still feel that social media would create so much indirect tension and turmoil within me. Whether it be checking the news or witnessing some arbitrary discourse on a heated topic, it’s easy to lose focus of the direct barriers in front of me. Burnham, albeit on a larger scale, understands this internal conflict, and Eighth Grade is very much that anxious artist within him, reminiscing on being in the spotlight at such a fragile time in his life. It’s so validating to see a film embrace the connectedness in our world with honesty. One that successfully criticizes the digital sphere without shaming the youth for being active members of it. One that captures a snapshot of what it’s like to live in 2018, just from the unique perspective of an anxious, pre-teen girl. One that understands that sometimes teenagers need an escape, to tune out their surroundings, but that they are never completely free. With all of its complexities, Eighth Grade is more than just a referential piece of fiction, it’s a coming-of-age film for a troubled time.

There’s one particular scene in the film that’s equal parts hilarious/crushingly real but sums up the film’s conventional narrative of Kayla and meta-narrative of our youth as a whole. At Kayla’s middle school, there’s a school shooting drill where the principal carries a fake gun and “shoots” up the drama kids in the hallway. The kids are asked what to do if an armed attacker is approaching them, to which they monotonously respond to run in the other direction. It’s a comedic encapsulation of “right now” in demonstrating the crisis we live in, but it also brings attention to how desensitized these kids are to the implications of violence. However, while the drill is happening, we are in Kayla’s perspective who is staring at her crush, Aiden. While the scene around them is an indirect reminder of the generational issue, Kayla is concerned with her direct adolescent crush on the popular boy at school. But perhaps it’s comforting, that even with the way that the world is, kids are still just being kids.

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