I watched Bo Burnham’s comedy special Make Happy on Netflix for the first time in the fall of my freshman year of college. In the final song, Burnham emulates Kanye’s famously long and rambling rants from the Yeezus tour. It focuses on performance—and the joys, anxieties, and resulting pain of making your living on-stage. Just before he goes into the bit, he segways by warning: “If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” Burnham’s new film Eighth Grade returns to this idea, using clever writing, outstanding performances, and unbelievably detailed imagery to explore the everyday “on-stage” life of teenagers.
This movie could not have been made 20 years ago—or even seven years ago, when I was in eighth grade. An entire cast of young actors, an uncertain audience, and a completely untested director—not an easy movie to pitch. But a radically different cultural environment, where “niche” projects like Eighth Grade can much more easily find an audience, give us films that are insightful, honest, and important. And this is Bo Burnham’s gift to us.
Centering on Kayla, played by an amazingly talented Elsie Fisher, we watch as a young girl muddles her way through junior high life in a world that doesn’t just expect her to figure out who she is, but pressures her to broadcast that self-discovery to everyone she knows in real time. This (both internally and externally) forced performance takes its toll on Kayla. Her anxiety is palpable, relatable, and excruciating. There is no escape for the viewer, just as there is no escape for Kayla, as we watch her march through a succession of cringe-inducing moments.
With dialogue shot through with filler words, unapologetically awkward silences, and referential (but universally understandable) humor, Burnham expertly nails the language of teenagers. The film is never overly dramatic or romantic or clichéd—instead, it’s honest to its core. At one point in the film an unseen student interrupts an assembly speaker with a perfectly timed “Lebron Jaaaames”—it’s a perfectly timed and perfectly honest moment in a movie that never talks down to its characters. Burnham develops the kinds of characters you knew when you were 13. We see “types” that still somehow manage to exist as their own nuanced and fully realized characters. We don’t see the stereotypical jock—instead, we see the popular, skinny boy in the Steph Curry jersey. We don’t see the stereotypical nerd—instead, we see the kid who wears goggles and a swim shirt to the pool party.
These are the spot-on details that make Eighth Grade shine. I loved the corkboard that is still adorned with paper four-leaf clovers in May. And the principal who’s clearly written out this speech on the notecards he left in his office. Or the tarnish on the trumpet bell that just screams “I’ve been at this school for way too long.” It’s all real, and we all know it because we all lived it.
Stories About Teenagers Typically Go One of Two Ways
I can broadly categorize most teenager-focused films in two well-worn categories…
- They deal in tropes as currency and rely on nostalgia and status quo to pull in numbers
- They’re framed by some spectacular conflict as a ploy to legitimize the normal issues teenagers face. Maybe the teenagers are locked in a battle between the jocks and the nerds, or facing an alien invasion, or battling a monstrous incursion in a post-apocalyptic world, or dealing with the death of a friend. These are all plot-props that bait us into the issues that really matter. It’s the filmmaker admitting that the normal, everyday issues of teenagers don’t hold our interest enough to carry a film. This has always disappointed me. Teenagers are uniquely positioned to care about things the world eventually convinces you aren’t important enough to care about. They focus on personal relationships and identity—that’s what’s important to Burnham and, it turns out, to us.
Eighth Grade has the courage and the savvy to tell average story about an average teenager and uses her average experience to force adults to examine things like anxiety, the pervading influence of the Internet, and the forming of our identity through the lens of a filmmaker who cares about all of this as if it really matters. Burnham uses an honest adolescent narrative to force perspective on the adults watching, allowing them the space to care about nebulous things again in a way that’s typically discouraged. Watching a film about a 34-year-old man with anxiety issues might be interesting, but watching a 13-year-old girl struggle to come to terms with her day-to-day anxieties allows me to relate, and through that, take stock of the anxieties in my life now. Eighth Grade is what teenage movies have the potential to be: piercing, focused, and unavoidably affecting.
Remarkable Insights Into the Internet Age
Eighth Grade is saturated with lonely-but-hopeful monologues, delivered by Kayla into her laptop camera. In them, the film captures the Internet age in a way no other film has done. In a time of extreme self-expression, extreme self-consciousness reigns. Our lives are documented and edited and uploaded. We shape our histories in real time. We broadcast ourselves, and are forced to decide what “self” we want to broadcast. We capture and manipulate memory for our benefit. My parents never had to consider “is it dishonest to delete the photos of me with my ex on Facebook” or “when is it okay for me to change my relationship status” or “I wonder if they’ll see that I watched their story.” But these are every-moment realities for teenagers. Burnham captures this moment in time, its pressures and exhilarations, its freedoms and fear, and above all else, its lack of an escape route, without ever oversimplifying the issue or the any of the characters living through it.
When Burnham took a step back from stand-up to put his energy into filmmaking, I was skeptical. Comedians don’t have a great track record here. I don’t know why I was worried. Burnham’s stand-up is more than clever; his comedy has the ability to reach past our defenses and prod our curiosity. Eighth Grade is an extension, a magnification, of that momentum. It offers the viewer a story about lonely teenager performing for an audience of everyone she’s ever met, and forces us to ask ourselves: “What audience am I performing for?”
Have we considered how we might feel if we just stopped performing?