Bo Burnham’s stunning indie comedy Eighth Grade opens with a YouTube advice video shot by shy 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) on her laptop. Her topic is “being yourself,” but it contrasts with her wish to be anyone else. She stumbles over her words, stopping and starting, professing how important it is to be who you really are even though she has no idea who she is yet. Burnham showcases universal eighth-grade experiences: there are shots of kids messing with their braces, huffing highlighters, and suffering romantic crushes. But Eighth Grade also comments on how instant access to social media can amplify teenagers’ awkwardness and anxiety.
This is evident in Kayla’s morning routine: she wakes up, checks her phone, and follows a makeup tutorial on YouTube before a mirror decorated with such Post-it affirmations as “Go get ’em” and “Small talk practice.” Once she’s done with her makeup, she goes back to bed, where she takes heavily filtered Snapchat photos of herself and sends them with the caption “I woke up like this, ugh.” At night Kayla scrolls endlessly through social media. Instagram posts, Facebook feeds, slime videos, and Buzzfeed quizzes are juxtaposed onscreen with her face, lit only by her phone. An entire montage shows her taking selfies in her backyard, scrolling through the rows of photos, and choosing one for her Instagram profile.
Kayla needs social media because she has no social life. In assembly, during the annual class awards, she’s embarrassed when she wins Most Quiet. She stands off to one side in band rehearsal, playing the cymbals, and has no core group of friends or even a best friend. She engages with people on social media, either by commenting on Instagram posts or Snapchatting her friends, but she approaches the popular girls at school without making eye contact. Interacting through social media is just easier; she can take her time and control how she’s seen by her classmates—and even herself.
Despite all Kayla’s ums and ahs, she expresses some surprisingly astute ideas in her YouTube videos. In one, she observes that confidence is something you can pretend that you have until you actually acquire it–the “fake-it-till-you-make-it” philosophy familiar to all anxious teens. Burnham cuts from the video to a birthday party for one of the popular girls at school. Kayla, who’s been invited out of politeness, feels uncomfortable and calls her dad to beg for a ride home as her classmates sing karaoke in another room. But then she heads over to the group and takes the microphone, her video alter ego reminding us in voice-over, “You can’t be brave unless you’re scared.”
Burnham shows a scene of Kayla in sex-ed class, but her real education comes online. She nurses a crush for her classmate Aiden (Luke Prael), a skateboarding heartthrob who won for Best Eyes. Aiden is known around school for wanting nude photos from girls, so Kayla not-so-subtly lets slip that she might have a dirty-photos folder on her phone. Instead of going through the awkward process of dating in person, she googles “how to give a good blowjob” and tries, unsuccessfully, to practice with a banana. After a confrontation with a high school boy in the backseat of his car, Kayla comes home feeling guilty, as if she should apologize for her own hurt feelings. When she breaks down in her bedroom, Burnham replaces the audio with the countdown clock on her laptop camera, and Kayla declares that she’s going to stop making videos: “I’m always nervous.”
While Kayla serves as the audience’s surrogate for this constant nervousness, it’s felt by all the film’s characters. Kayla idolizes the cool high schoolers who’ve adopted her, but they’re just as scared and lost as she is. These older kids argue that Kayla is “wired differently” than they are because she was exposed to social media at a younger age, but they’re forced to perform online just as Kayla is. Eighth Grade is a harrowing portrait of anxiety and acceptance in a post-social-media landscape, showing how all of us cope with an ever-changing, constantly refreshing world. v