Millennials are viewed by many, particularly older generations, as an alien lifeform too vain, self-centred and obsessed with technology to be considered human. But, like all people, this generation can, and does, experience feelings of vulnerability, especially during adolescence.
The final week of middle school is upon the introverted, friendless Kayla (Elsie “Agnes” Fisher) who has just been voted the “Most Quiet” student of the graduating eighth graders by her peers. This accolade is not the only humiliating feat in Kayla’s life – she’s also the creator of a self-help video series on YouTube that sees her awkwardly provide advice on how to socialise and network, with a level of quality reflected in her lack of views.
Driven by these two sources of embarrassment, Kayla decides to practice what she preaches and make herself more popular, by first attending the birthday party of the most popular girl at school, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), then wooing her airheaded crush Aiden (Luke Prael) and finally, after participating in orientation day at high school, befriending the quirky, outgoing Olivia (Emily Robinson), who becomes something of mentor to Kayla.
Eighth Grade is the directorial debut of stand-up comedian Bo Burnham, who first rose to prominence via the very platform Kayla utilises to share her videos. Burnham is not the first “YouTuber” to make a feature-length film, but he is the first to gain a mainstream distributor in A24, an entertainment firm renowned for its quality – it counts the likes of Lady Bird and the Oscar-winning Moonlight as part of its prestigious catalogue.
Both of the abovementioned releases are coming-of-age movies, a trait which Eighth Grade shares, but of the same calibre it is not. In the instance of Lady Bird, it was made special by detailing the complex, fractious relationship between its teenage protagonist and her spirited mother, an element Burnham’s film does not possess. Instead, Kayla is placidly parented by her single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton) who merely finds his daughter’s behaviour perplexing.
The differences between Eighth Grade and Moonlight are even more astounding. The latter film has a male character whose story is personal and unique, being an African-American, coming from an impoverished background and struggling with his sexuality; this new release, meanwhile, is about a straight, white female adolescent who lives in a typical American suburb in modest comfort, which certainly is not the most innovative of material.
None of this is to say that Eighth Grade is a bland, unoriginal experience – far from it. The movie is a rather accurate portrayal of modern adolescence, demonstrating the unease that many people feel during this time. The scene that best exemplifies this anguish sees Kayla observe Kennedy’s pool party from behind a glass door to a loud, bass-heavy electronic soundtrack, allowing the audience to understand how scared and uncomfortable she feels.
This feeling of discomfort is a prominent motif of Eighth Grade, which demands that the viewer share in Kayla’s feelings. It’s there when she blunders her way through a self-help video with an assortment of “umms”, “yeahs” and “likes”; it’s there when her accolade is announced to the entire group of eighth graders; it’s there when she tries to hide her disgust of bananas; and it’s most certainly there when she participates in a tactless game of Truth or Dare.
One final thing to note about Eighth Grade is how of-the-moment its story is compared to others. For example, Kennedy embodies the stereotypical teenage girl of the 2010s, constantly using her smartphone, rarely speaking and treating the unpopular Kayla with utter disgust; conversely, the adults are desperately trying to stay relevant, using phrases such as “lit” and believing that Facebook is a widely-used communication tool.
Never has a coming-of-age movie better reflected the awkwardness, anxiety and agony of teenagehood better than Eighth Grade. Although it lacks the innovation of its A24 stablemates, Bo Burnham’s feature-length debut is nonetheless a compelling and insightful picture, lead by a protagonist that viewers can readily identify with.