“Do I make you sad?” Thirteen-year-old Kayla poses this question to her father in the climax of Bo Burnham’s feature film “Eighth Grade.” Kayla has been through plenty of lonely days and nights as an outcast at her middle school. People she has trusted have betrayed her, and possible friends have ignored her. Kayla has done everything she could to reconcile her struggle, but nothing has worked. Middle school hasn’t been what everyone made it out to be, and she blames herself.
Many have tried to make good middle school movies and have failed. Most of these films have consisted of a few awkward gags, some character growth and a love interest thrown in for good measure. After all, nobody wants to fully dive into those awkward full years. Movies like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and shows on Disney Channel have tried their best, but even they haven’t been able to exactly nail it. Could it be fear? Is middle school too unpleasant to think back on? Maybe a real middle school movie is impossible to market since no family movie could show the reality of growing up, or maybe it’s because middle schoolers are always changing, and the adults writing these movies can't keep up. Whatever the reason is, middle schoolers remain one of the most misunderstood and underrepresented groups in America. That’s what comedian Bo Burnham set out to fix when he made his feature film “Eighth Grade.”
Kayla (played by Elsie Fisher) is an awkward eighth grader trying to make friends while reconciling her growing pains. Her dad says that she's always been special, but she can’t seem to discover how to get the same admiration from her friends or, rather, how to get a friend at all. She runs a vlog channel on YouTube, where she gives advice for problems she hasn't figured out how to solve for herself yet. Her videos, with subjects such as confidence or friendship, act as voice-overs on top of scenes where she eats alone or cries in her room. She seeks friendship, even to the point of breaking it down to a step-by-step system, but even the system fails her. Early on, for example, she’s invited to a birthday party for one of the most popular girls in the class (played by Catherine Oliviere), but, unfortunately, her invitation comes from the girl’s mom. Kayla is trapped, not knowing who to turn to or even what to ask. Burnham shows her feeling left behind in a world where everyone seems to have sociability figured out.
As a young comedian who started on YouTube, only Bo Burnham could have made this movie. He displays the use of cell phones as both a database and an escape. One early scene shows Kayla following a makeup tutorial on YouTube. A later scene involves scrolling through Instagram away from other middle schoolers. Despite their frequent use, he doesn’t demonize cell phone or internet usage at all. He knows Kayla and other middle schoolers are always on the internet, so he utilizes it as another important component of their lives.
Burnham crafts this movie to let us take a personal look at Kayla and the cloud of anxiety that surrounds her. The film is very colorful, showing her off as a grey spot in an overstimulating world (reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai or Sofia Coppola). My friend Jon also mentioned the importance of music in this movie. For example, the beautiful electronic soundtrack (composed by Anna Meredith) is able to show both her growing anxiety and her moments of relief. When Kayla is going to the birthday pool party, she exits the bathroom to a dark house illuminated by the colorful party outside. She creeps up to the sliding glass door and the camera creeps behind her, as the music swells to an intense high. Not only is the movie better off with the color and soundtrack, but both are also used sparingly. Some of the most powerful moments happen in silence, the room dark and camera unmoving on Kayla’s face.
While accepting his American Independent Award for Best First Screenplay for “Eighth Grade,” Bo Burnham mentioned that many have called him a comedian for middle school girls. “F**k yeah I am,” he says. “I feel really proud of that. They deserve to be paid attention to and taken seriously.” Bo Burnham did the impossible and created an uncompromising look at the growing pains of a middle school girl. I recommend this movie to everyone, but mainly to middle schoolers. Despite its R-rating, I promise it's nothing they haven't seen or heard before.