Eight Grade is out now. Get your tickets here!
Armed with a beauty blender and a hairdryer, Kayla opens Eighth Grade preparing for a day at school. Following the direction of an everyday make-up tutorial on YouTube, she vigorously dabs her face with foundation like the girl on her laptop screen. When finished, Kayla gets back into bed, picks up her phone, chooses an adequate facewarping filter and snaps the perfect candid shot. “Just woke up like this... ugh!!!” she captions her Snapchat story.
Bo Burnham’s directorial debut takes a week in the life of a 13-year-old girl at the end of middle school, and dignifies the awkward anxiety that colours every minute of it. Kayla makes her own inspirational YouTube videos (the film opens with guidance on “Being Yourself”), giving nondescript advice that she reads off flashcards to a meager online audience. These videos never stray into self-pity - rather, they allow Kayla to express and understand her own raw and confused thoughts while providing a mirror for others living through it. Eighth Grade isn’t nostalgic or melodramatic, it’s an honest snapshot of teenagehood in 2018.
Kayla shows the kind of bravery you need at an age where you only learn by making the most embarrassing mistakes. At war with an audience of silent scrollers online and dead-eyed faces at school, growing up in the age of the internet is both a love affair and a waking nightmare. Her disastrous last week of eighth grade looks more authentic than some of the frivolous, sanitised teen movies that are now considered classics. What had been missing though? How did a former Vine celebrity and self-deprecating straight, white male comedian pinpoint the complexity of a nervous teenage girl in his first 90-minute feature?
Historically, coming-of-age moments in film have been defined by a formulaic and predictable narrative - barefaced introvert blossoms into accomplished and learned young adult in matter of weeks or months. Often written as underdogs but played by conventionally attractive, 20-something (sometimes even 30-something) Hollywood stars, the characters represent an unrealistic ideal presented as an attainable reality. Eighth Grade instantly feels fresh by trusting 15-year-old Elsie Fisher (13 at the time of filming) as the lead - an actor otherwise known for voicing the unicorn-loving Agnes in the first two Despicable Me movies. Fisher was only allowed to read one page of the script before joining the project, and was encouraged to relax when learning lines, as any hesitation or mistake would only make Kayla seem more real.
Thinking back to emblematic teen movies like Grease and the High School Musical trilogy as examples which give an ensemble look at the teenage experience, the focus on high school students tends to allow more sensationalistic topics like sex or drugs. Eighth Grade digs deeper by starting earlier, allowing a more authentic confession of torturous insecurities that aren’t necessarily dangerous, but that never feel any less terrifying. The first year of teenagehood is rarely given enough responsibility on the big screen to reflect anxieties that define an era, which, as the young adults become a bit older, can lose gravitas by focusing on more instantly entertaining topics. Imperfections are often ironed out, or only focused on in a way that’s entertaining enough to distract from the emotional damage beneath.
Physically, it’s rare and refreshing to see characters like Eighth Grade’s Kayla who have visible acne - something that director Greta Gerwig deliberately didn’t hide by camouflaging Saoirse Ronan’s skin in the Oscar-nominated Lady Bird, either. Psychologically, there’s a disparity between the feeling of anguish that is generally established as the default trait of these characters, and the way that such movies are then labelled as comedies, boasting slapstick disaster situations such as the musical number “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee”, which pokes fun at Sandy’s insecurities in Grease. For Kayla, a pool party that would elsewhere provide the butt of a cult joke now feels like the crux of a movie that asks for teenagers to be taken seriously. Neither the way she feels about her skin-hugging neon green swimsuit nor the severity of her panic attack in the cool girl’s bathroom feel cheap, or laughable. Far from being a forgettable mumblecore replica, the pool party scene gives a conventionally inoffensive backdrop a searing brutality.
Many teen movies also fall short on a sociological level; namely, they lack diversity. In Grease, by focusing on a group of visibly wealthy teenagers who have no desire or need to reckon with ideas of privilege or discrimination, it’s difficult to trust the emotional impact on an inevitably more varied audience. An offspring of the genre like Tina Fey’s Mean Girls doesn’t do much better, as it tackles the toxicity of high school relationships, but still in a way that’s told by a specific group of teenagers that not everyone can relate to - physically or mentally. How can you feel understood as an underdog when the unpopular kid at school is played by Disney postergirl, the successful and wholesome star (in 2004 at least), Lindsay Lohan?
Teenagers in 2018 have a wider sociological understanding because of their means of communication. The virtual backdrop of social media allows Kayla to better understand society and her place in it, rather than just epitomising the stereotypical prejudice about how little depth teenagers have. She survives adolescence on the internet; finding comfort in Buzzfeed Disney quizzes, Instagram-stalking the guy she has a crush on, and eventually recording a time capsule video for her older self to look back on. While Kayla is obsessed with the calamity of making friends and the way she’s seen by other people, it’s an obsession that allows her to exist as different versions of herself. “There’s the school you, the movie you, the pool you, the weekend you”, she explains in the “Putting Yourself Out There” video. This distinction between several personas and the expectations we create allows a richer definition of the labour of teenagehood, and the efforts involved to keep up appearances. For kids raised on the internet, Eighth Grade exposes the discrepancies between how we present ourselves online and how that translates in person.
The unassuming honesty of Eighth Grade is allowing a change in the way teenagers exist on film by letting every contradictory emotion finally feel as important as it does when you’re growing up and every bad day feels like the end of the world. Burnham and Fisher have captured the tiny milestones of teenage life with lightning precision. As Kayla marches up to a karaoke machine with determination, she’s luminous while the inarticulate yet somehow wise advice in her “How to be Confident” video reaches out beyond the screen to her already loyal viewers: “The hard part about being yourself is that it’s not always easy. Everything will work out if you’re just being yourself.”