Eighth Grade tackles social media, anxiety, and viscerally awkward embarrassment | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Eighth Grade tackles social media, anxiety, and viscerally awkward embarrassment

Director Bo Burnham captures eternal awkwardness of early-teenage time before high school.

Eighth Grade tackles social media, anxiety, and viscerally awkward embarrassment
Photo courtesy of A24
Eighth Grade starring Elsie Fisher

If you ever meet someone who says they had a great time in middle school, run. If you are that person, I’m sorry, but we exist on different planes. For those who barely made it out of those awkward, emotional, pubescent years, watching Eighth Grade, a dramedy from comedian Bo Burnham, will be a visceral and immersive experience. 

If you were very specifically an awkward, suburban, middle-school girl in the mid-2000s, and you had few friends, loving parents, and undiagnosed anxiety, you might drive to Burnham's house, knock on its door, and demand to know what gave him the right to make a documentary about your life.

For everyone else, this movie will be a funny, uncomfortable, and touching coming-of-age story. 

Eighth Grade centers around the last week of middle school for Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a shy and quiet girl who doesn't want to be either. She barely has friends. She does have a YouTube channel, where she posts videos about "being yourself" and "self-confidence" that rack up zero views, and a single dad (Josh Hamilton) trying his best. 

Kayla is invited to the popular girl's birthday by the popular girl's mom. She lusts over her crush in the middle of an active-shooter drill. She shatters her phone screen by throwing it in panic after her dad walks in while she’s making out with her hand. Eventually, Kayla meets a group of older high schoolers that provide eye-opening lessons. She learns how to act like someone else instead of being herself, and then how to come back around to being herself. 

This movie is not reliant on plot so much as hyper-realistic detail. It assembles nearly forgotten images from tweenhood: bored students stacking markers, snapping orthodontic rubber bands, blissfully sniffing highlighters, cringy sex-ed videos, and ill-fitting denim Bermuda shorts. 

Set in present-day, Eighth Grade is timeless in its comprehension of early-teen awkwardness. But it's also very much of its time, understanding how Kids These Days use social media in a way most movies are only desperate to . When the popular girl's mom tells her to message Kayla on Facebook, she replies that "no one uses Facebook anymore," which is statistically true (for teens). In another scene, Kayla gets out of bed, does her makeup while watching a YouTube beauty guru, and then gets back into bed to take a picture for Snapchat; the implication is she woke up that way. 

Kayla mostly hangs out alone, scrolling through social-media feeds, taking BuzzFeed quizzes, watching Jimmy Fallon clips. The high schoolers poke fun at her age, saying she's a different generation. "How old were you when you got Snapchat?" one asks. "Fifth grade," Kayla replies. Shock and laughter follow, as if the gap between the high schoolers and Kayla could even compare to what a baby boomer might feel watching this movie.

And watching it will be different for everyone based on age. Walking out of a showing, I heard an older woman say: "I mean growing up with social media like that? I can't even imagine." 

I can't imagine not being able to imagine. How did teenagers learn to feel bad about themselves before social media?

The music cues are also an essential character. It relies on creeping electronic beats and pumping synth to score the chaotic pubescence in slow motion. Like a teen, EDM Jaws theme, it warns of upcoming embarrassment.

But what Eighth Grade captures best, and with an expert realism, is what it's like to be a teen with undiagnosed anxiety, wandering around life feeling like everybody knows something you don't. Burnham draws from his own experiences, having admitted to teenage anxiety similar to Kayla’s, as well as on-stage panic attacks.

 In her videos, Kayla talks about having a constant feeling in her stomach, as if she were waiting in line for a roller coaster. She hyperventilates in the bathroom before a pool party. She rehearses simple phone calls. When her dad asks her how she's doing, she says "good" — in a quivering way that renders each party unconvinced.

In middle school, you don't yet possess the language skills necessary to express that thing you're feeling, that thing you think no one else is feeling. Even with a nice dad who constantly says you are special, it’s near impossible to tell a parent, “I feel bad a lot.” Eighth Grade perfectly captures the gulf between a parent's unconditional love and a teenager's lack of self-worth. 

I'd like to think that if I saw this movie in middle school, it would've been some sort of revelation. After seeing it, when my parents asked how I was doing, I wouldn't say "good" instead of wanting to ask, "why does the world feel so much scarier for me?" At least, future eighth graders will have Eighth Grade, even if the bogus R-rating prevents them from seeing it.

“Sneak in,” says Burnham. His movie has captured something eternal.

Eighth Grade
Directed by: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher
Opens Aug. 3 at Manor Theatre

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