Intrigued by the stellar reviews, I was very excited to see Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade earlier this week. I went into the cinema with a few vague thoughts of previous “teen movies” on my mind. I came out realising that what I had witnessed was truly unique.
I’m not usually one to enthuse at length (and certainly not in writing) about the latest releases. To tell the truth, I am often a rather behind on the cinematic times. But Bo Burnham’s perspective is revelatory. Eighth Grade tells the story of a fairly unremarkable teenage girl, Kayla. Kayla has a youtube channel and obsessively scrolls through instagram, but in school she is quiet and a bit of a loner. Burnham’s unconventional coming-of-age story, which charts Kayla’s last few days in eighth grade, is simple and offers a refreshing perspective on teenage life.
But I was quick to realise that the manifest attention to detail and verisimilitude that Burnham displays in his portrayal of early adolescence should not be quite so groundbreaking. All of us have been, are, or will be adolescents, and yet Eighth Grade sits alone amongst films like Mean Girls, Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This is not to say that these last three films are unworthy of praise; quite the contrary – they are often funny, emotive and good at highlighting some of the fundamental paradoxes of teenage life. But they are often equally unrealistic in many senses. Many films about being a teenager are commonly aimed solely at a teenage audience, and so even the best display a strange combination of reality and fantasy (sometimes in the form of glamorous 20-somethings playing fourteen year-olds) which always somehow rings hollow.
But Eighth Grade, though totally rooted in the perspective of a young teenager, is a film that can and should resonate with everyone in its truthfulness. In its painstaking portrayal of the routine but nevertheless stressful life of Kayla, Eighth Grade attempts to put the average teenage experience at the forefront of cultural conversation.
And this attempt is absolutely vital. Bo Burnham himself explained that he chose to write about a female teenage protagonist after watching teenagers vlogging online. He connected with the ways that the girls spoke, and their experiences of anxiety resonated with his own. He also felt that there were no accurate portrayals of this age group in the media or popular culture.
Just by taking the time to watch some of the material teenagers themselves have produced, Burnham found himself feeling an emotional and mental connection with their experiences. And it seems that this connection is what is needed for the onscreen teenage experience to radiate authenticity.
Because the things that upset or frustrate young characters in Eighth Grade are not so different from the stresses of adult life. Kayla talks about experiencing constant anxiety in her vlogs: “I could be doing nothing, and I’m still nervous. It’s like that feeling before you ride a rollercoaster…Except that feeling you get after you ride the rollercoaster never comes.” And with roughly 18% of the adult US population experiencing some form of anxiety disorder, Kayla’s experience as Burnham captures it is surely designed to hold true for so many of those watching, regardless of age.
Kayla also confesses to her dad that she would be disappointed and sad if she had a daughter like herself. That crippling feeling of inadequacy, of being insufficient – that is not purely a teenage emotion; but neither is it the preserve of adults.
A lot of things are currently being discussed regarding youth mental health and the effects of social media on young people’s lives. Several reports suggest that adolescents today are growing up with higher levels of anxiety than ever before. But though these findings are part of national discussion, they nevertheless exist alongside behaviours which demean and demoralise young people. For example, young people expressing their concerns about mental health, the environment, and rising inequality are sometimes condemned as ‘snowflakes’ by media outlets which seek to silence those views by attempting to delegitimise the person expressing them. Tropes such as ‘your schooldays are the best of your life’ are regularly churned out to any teenager who complains about stress and trouble in school.
Young people’s issues and concerns are often considered subordinate to those of adults, but what Bo Burnham’s film does is to challenge this narrative. Kayla’s concerns are concerns shared by all ages and genders, and just because they are magnified by an embarrassment at a pool party or an unrequited crush, it does not make them insignificant. After all, people throughout their lives have to face awkward social situations, ones that require them to pluck up courage and face fears. Adults and teenagers alike experience pangs of emotion towards people who do not feel the same, and the crushing blows that this can have on one’s self-esteem are hard to take at any age.
I remember distinctly being fourteen and panicking over schoolwork and the future. Feeling mutinous and upset after being told by an adult that I was being melodramatic, I swore to myself that I would never patronise young people when they expressed their worries. Now twenty-one, I guess I’m still a young person, but I always remember fourteen year old me and my fears then. I try to make a point of not patronising anybody of any age, but I think Bo Burnham has done it far better than I ever could. That’s what I like so much about Eighth Grade; its refusal to patronise or simplify the teenage voice. And if more of the film industry begins to follow his example, I think we have the chance to shape better intergenerational conversations and, hopefully, a more empathetic society.