The Challenges of Being a Teenager
It’s easy to forget just how it hard it is to be thirteen. Bo Burnham’s new movie, Eighth Grade, reminds us of these difficulties, with stunningly impressive force. The loneliness, the self absorption and awkward interactions that are all mainstays of the middle school years are rendered with total honesty by Kayla, played by the very talented Elsie Fisher. The events of the film all occur during Kayla’s final week of 8th grade. Kayla is an aspiring YouTube star, who despite the earnest life advice she shares on her channel, finds it nearly impossible to make friends at school. Simultaneously terrified to begin high school and impatient to leave middle school behind, Kayla occupies a kind of awkward, liminal space that people of all ages will recognize.
Growing Up in the Era of Social Media
Kayla has grown up in the age of technology and social media, in a way that informs her, and anyone near her age, experiences. However, it is important to note the nuanced way Burnham approaches the role of technology for Kayla: as both a source of anxiety while still acknowledging the more positive role it can play in adolescent life. In this way, Burnham is able to accurately depict the way technology influences of all our lives, Kayla just happened to grow up using it. Oftentimes, social media is blamed for all of society's ills, but to do so, the film seems to say, is to negate just how important it can be in people’s, particularly teenagers’ lives.
The film is also very authentic in its depiction of Kayla’s anxiety. We see Kayla having what appears to be a panic attack in a bathroom, but after she emerges, no one is able to tell; an experience anyone with anxiety will recognize. Kayla’s anxiety is never discussed outright, however, once Kayla is able to recognize how difficult social interactions are for her particularly because of her constant “worrying”–as she describes it–she is able to set some positive life changes in motion. Navigating social situations as a teenager is hard and navigating social situations as a teen with anxiety is even harder. The movie’s treatment of Kayla’s anxiety is a very sympathetic one, which is no doubt accomplished by Burnham's own experiences with anxiety.
The Reality of Being a Teenager
Despite never relying on common troupes that often ruin movies about teenagers, by the end of the film, Kayla’s life seems to be changing for the better. It is the commitment to depicting an authentic teenage experiences–acne, loneliness, anxiety and all–that make Eighth Grade such an important film. So often, Hollywood makes it nearly impossible for teenagers to see the messy reality of their lives reflected in the glossy sheen of the films that populate the teenage movie canon, magnifying the feelings of inadequacy so central to teenage emotions. Eighth Grade seeks to remedy this.