Kids today, eh? They don’t know they’re born. They’ve never had it better, but they spend all their time glued to their phones, living their lives through social media. That’s the easy, lazy criticism of Gen Z, which Bo Burnham dismantles piece by piece in his incredible debut, Eighth Grade.
As his script acknowledges in a smart meta-argument between several twelfth-graders, technological advances are so fast that kids becoming teenagers now have a profoundly different experience to those born even a handful of years earlier. Such observations usually imply an easier or more coddled existence, but really it just means different – nothing more, nothing less.
Bo Burnham’s script picks apart these differences with astonishing skill and insight, particularly when it comes to the artificiality and honesty of social media. The opening scene is a perfect example, featuring a brilliant, raw monologue from Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she records a video for her YouTube channel. She’s offering advice about how to be yourself, but ends the video by begging her non-existent fanbase to like and share her video.
The over-sharing that older generations like to decry isn’t just narcissism or solipsism – though yes, it can be both those things. More often than not it’s simply the latest way for people to share how they feel, what they’re going through, and at the end of it all to realise they’re not so alone.
Social media is built around the veneer of authenticity, but that’s something it’s almost impossible to attain when you’re an eighth-grader still desperately trying to work out who you are. Burnham’s brilliance is in illustrating how this generation’s performativity is not exclusive to social media, but is in fact the same thirst for popularity – or just to be liked, by anyone – that has afflicted every generation that has and will exist. Kids will always want to copy and impress their ‘coolest’ peers, and they’ll always surrender their real selves in that pursuit.
One age-old problem Kayla faces is the way teens treat sexual promiscuity as a misguided way of gaining popularity. She desperately wants people to like her, particularly Aidan (Luke Prael), winner of Best Eyes in their year group, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen, including offering up nudes and blow jobs to a guy who clearly couldn’t care less about her.
This performance Kayla affects to earn friends is painful to watch, but highly relatable. If you’ve ever been the awkward kid swallowed by anxiety in a room of new people, suppressed some part of yourself to avoid seeming weird, or pretended to like something just to fit in, you’ll recognise every fidget and blush of Elsie Fisher’s incredible performance.
Bo Burnham’s film thrives in these awkward spaces within social interactions, offering a curt rejoinder to its glossier classmates in the teen movie genre. There are moments when Eighth Grade seems ready to slip into that Hollywood mode. There is a slick montage set to throbbing synths when love interest Aidan is first introduced, but Burnham undercuts that stylistic flourish with honesty, killing the soundtrack and giving Kayla a silent, awkward moment in which to squeak out some praise in the hope of grabbing Aidan’s attention. That’s what real life is like; no soundtrack, no slo-mo.
Generational statements age far quicker and less gracefully than their targets, and Burnham is smart enough to recognise this. His script initially seems to vilify the horrible kids in her grade whom Kayla is trying to impress, but it later becomes clear that there are horrible and good kids in every age group. There’s nothing particularly awful about eighth grade, and the stuff she’s going through now will pass.
The way Kayla gets through it is by slowly learning that she is not alone with her awkwardness and anxiety. Olivia, the twelth-grader who befriends her, is goofy and uncool in many ways, but confident enough to understand that those things don’t define her. Gabe, the weird kid she meets at a pool party, has unusual hobbies and finds social interactions as awkward as her, but he doesn’t torture himself trying to fit in. By realising she’s not the only one who feels like this, Kayla discovers enough freedom to be herself and find some friendship.
It’s this gap between Kayla’s perception of herself and reality which is the heart of Eighth Grade. She thinks she’s too quiet and awkward for anyone to like, but when she finally finds friends that expand her social circle, she realises she was judging herself too harshly by the false perfection of social media. As her dad (an excellent Josh Hamilton) says just before the film’s climax: “If you could just see yourself how I see you, I swear to god you wouldn’t be scared either.” He sees the real her, without any of the prejudice, curation or cruelty of her classmates. No filter.