In Eighth Grade, director and writer Bo Burnham skillfully makes viewers cognizant of the awkwardness associated with growing up. The feeling of discomfiture is enhanced throughout the film by technology, sound design, and new social situations. Burnham made the feature film debut of this comedic drama in 2018. The quirky film stars Kayla Day, who is brilliantly played by Elsie Fisher in an observant and sincere way. Kayla lives with her single father Mark, (Josh Hamilton) who adds a touching performance that will make you want to appreciate your parents more.
The film follows Kayla throughout her last week of middle school. Kayla is quiet and socially awkward, going as far as to win the “most quiet” award at school. However, at home, she makes YouTube videos to give advice and talk about things she can’t actually do in real life. Kayla uses technology to be herself and feel like she belongs. A subplot throughout the movie explores Kayla’s love life and her experience with guys, which leads to several new social situations. As part of the last week of grade eight, all the middle students are brought to a high school for ‘shadow day’ where Kayla makes friends with her shadow, an older student Olivia.
Every time I’ve watched Eighth Grade, the run time of 1h 34 min feels much longer – which isn’t a bad thing – due to the pretty constant awkwardness that induces peeking around fingers and many cringe moments. Burnham’s ability to connect to an audience is incredibly strong, even throughout his comedy specials such as Make Happy and what. I’ve appreciated his ability to make everyone feel connected to the content he creates. The writing of Eighth Grade provided me with extensive examples of real-life situations that made the film that much better. From Crayola marker towers to holding my breath underwater and parting my hair in an unflattering way at the back, Kayla reminds me of growing up in middle school. The technology, soundtrack, and countless connections that I made to the situations Kayla was in made my experience with this film worthwhile.
Technology has emerged quite recently, considering no other generation has had as much exposure to technology as Kayla’s. Even growing up myself, I didn’t even have a phone until tenth grade unlike many of my friends. Due to my firsthand experience of what people are like when they’re absorbed in their phones, I had lots of empathy when she was trying to navigate painful conversations with people who were more interested in technology. In an overhead shot of students in a lecture hall, the audience is exposed to all of the phones in everyone’s laps, showcasing the integration of technology into daily life. Additionally, educational videos and built-in desktops are used in classrooms showing the full extent of this internet usage. Imagine trying to have a conversation with someone who is online shopping and they’re finding their size to order a dress before it sells out. Awkward. They won’t have enough time to focus their energy on you which will lead to unwanted embarrassment. This is the type of situation Kayla finds herself in more than once either as the one on the phone or the ‘interrupter.’ Struggling to communicate with others due to overexposure to the internet is a theme Burnham has written into his script quite well. One of the most effective ways Eighth Grade demonstrates the degree to which devices play a part in Kayla’s life is through a montage to a song featuring the lyrics “sail away.” The song can relate to the feeling of freedom Kayla may have while surfing the web and escaping from the awkward situations of real life, and could also hint to all the time that she can waste online as it sails away.
Music-wise, the choice of songs greatly improves the message of the film and the ability to feel what Kayla is going through. Psychedelic synth, drones, and strong beats push the storyline and mimic the anxiety of Kayla on the screen. The electro-type soundtrack of Eighth Grade helps connect to the theme of technology and reflects the sort of things that the characters do. The soundtrack feels like something out of a flashback memory and frequently provides another layer to connect to and enhance the experience. I’ve noticed that thematic awkwardness conveyed through sound is very specific to how Kayla is feeling in each situation, whether she’s with people or on her own.
When we’re going through middle school and high school, so much of our time is spent trying new things and learning constantly. For Kayla, the new situations she encounters force her to grow throughout the film. Long tracking shots are used to follow Kayla around throughout her life and give the audience a closeness of being in the moment with her that further increases the tension. In Eighth Grade Bo Burnham often creates comedic scenes from uncomfortable circumstances, which results in a unique dramatic comedy approach to middle school. When you’re in grade eight, people are often wrapped up in gossip and everything seems very important like what you do will define you for the rest of your life, so the genre of the film helps amplify the ‘dire’ situations. Burnham has written painstakingly realistic scenes that add to the adventure of Eighth Grade, which is arguably my favourite thing about the film.
Generally, Eighth Grade tells an accurate (and cringy) coming of age story in the best way possible. I thoroughly enjoyed being able to connect to so many of the situations through the main character Kayla. This is a film that I recommend watching alone or with your family, and then talking about it with other people. Watching alone allows you to fully embrace and appreciate the awkwardness of Burnham’s feature without having to worry about what others are thinking about it. The natural writing, relatable story, and distinguished performances in Eighth Grade deserve to be recognized despite all the awkward cringy-ness the audience must endure, and make for a memorable experience.