Eighth Grade

Burnham, Bo

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Jiang, Joshua
  • Date of entry: Feb-26-2019


A coming-of-age tale told in the parlance of Generation Z, Eighth Grade depicts the last week of Kayla Day’s middle school career. The path has not been easy: Kayla struggles with social anxiety and doesn’t have many friends. She’s voted “most quiet” by her class, but despite her outward reality, Kayla contends on her personal YouTube channel that, in fact, she is humorous and cool and talkative, if only her classmates took the time to get to know her. Her assertions are put to the test in the following week, during which Kayla goes to a pool party hosted by Kennedy Graves (voted “best eyes”), attempts to kindle a spark with her crush, and attends a high school shadowing program. These experiences challenge Kayla to embody the advice she so readily espouses on her YouTube channel, and though she isn’t miraculously transformed into the most popular girl at school in time for graduation, she learns something of being herself.  


Eighth Grade plays like an exercise in cinema verite, combining handheld shots with simple editing that keeps both the on-screen action and viewer grounded. Not that there’s much in terms of traditional “action”: Kayla’s daily routine consists of spending inordinate amounts of time facing her phone and laptop, engaged with various social media outlets, particularly Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube. Interestingly, the decision to not use Facebook as a primary mode of communication came after the director, Bo Burnham, overheard actor Elsie Fisher claim that the social network was no longer popular among her peers. The Facebook anachronism reflects the unpredictable and rapid evolution of the Internet landscape between groups of people who are not even a generation apart. Not only have preferences shifted, but the capabilities of the Internet have grown too, and are changing us in the process. Burnham says in an interview with The Independent, “The way in which they [young people] view the world, the way in which they view themselves, the way in which they meet other people, the arena in which all of their emotions exist – it’s very different.”  

Yet, Eighth Grade departs from the modern diatribe on the woes of the Internet because it chooses to portray the platform somewhat neutrally. Notably, we do not witness the cyberbullying that has become synonymous with critiques of how young people act online. Instead, the Internet is a mediator between Kayla’s present self and the person she wishes to be. She’s currently nervous and awkward; she desires to be confident and outgoing. Her YouTube persona represents her hopeful self, one that projects effortless worldliness to her imaginary audience. The real audience is nevertheless privy to both sides of Kayla and must hold them in tension. Do we fault Kayla for being “fake”? Or do we view her with more compassion, and allow her infatuation with the Internet to be justified by the way it empowers her inner life?

In the world of the film, the Internet provides safety when the real world is risky. YouTube is a place for Kayla to articulate her ideals and values, and lest we chalk her talk up as escapism, we also see her take steps to become more like the person she is projecting. There’s a constancy and consistency to be found online, and uncertainty exists only in her interactions with actual people—sometimes she encounters people who love her, and sometimes people who hurt her. Given the tumultuous experiences of adolescence, we might sympathize with why Kayla chooses to devote her energies to her digital presence.   Though by no means an evangelist for the Internet, Eighth Grade explores the notion of the technology as a facilitator of our growth and challenges us to see it as not only as something to keep reins on, or as merely a pragmatic resource, but also as a space where people, especially younger ones, are going to form identity and become more like the people they aspire to be.


Winner of Best Original Screenplay at the 2018 Writers Guild of America Awards





Running Time (in minutes)