Eighth Grade (2018) by Bo Burnham
Review by Andrew Swafford
Despite 2018 being the year that “desktop thrillers” are officially becoming a thing, the most extremely online film of the year is surely Eighth Grade: it's directed by a former teenage YouTube celebrity, the film’s poster is obscured by an out-of-focus iPhone (mid-selfie), the first and final shots consist of MacBook Air webcam footage, and the credits play over a behind-the-glass close-up of a softly glittering LED screen. Much has been made of how Eighth Grade captures the universally-relatable awkwardness of what it’s like to be in middle school--dredging up embarrassing memories with painfully vivid accuracy--but the film is equally interested in the specifics: what it’s like to be in middle school right now, when attention can be quantified, harassment can be anonymous, and nudes can be circulated. As a teacher, I’ve had countless conversations with colleagues fretting about how much tougher adolescence must be in the age of social media, and I’ve always found myself nodding in agreement. However, Eighth Grade reframes the conversation, asking us to empathetically consider why kids love being plugged in.
Late in the film, protagonist Kayla reveals to a group of high-schoolers that she started using Snapchat in the fifth grade, and they break into a debate about whether or not her brain is wired differently than theirs as a result. Their argument is never resolved, but the film’s broad relatability seems to suggest that the mental struggle of adolescence is not profoundly different for Kayla than it was for the rest of us--she just has more tools at her disposal to cope with it. She’s able to figure out her own boundaries about sex by watching informational YouTube videos, for example, which is inarguably preferable to putting herself into a real-world scenario--and is ironically one of the only reasons that the film is rated R, prohibiting ticket sales to those who might benefit from watching the film most. Burnham, raised on the internet himself, is less concerned with alarmist theories about smartphones being designed to addict us (still valid) and more concerned with what emotional needs these devices are fulfilling for confused young people.
Undoubtedly, one of the most dire emotional needs for any adolescent is the need for self-confidence--it’s prime importance is even reflected in Anna Meredith’s electronic score for the film, which actually features three different tracks titled “How to Be Confident” (or some variation thereof). Kayla ruminates on the subject of confidence in many of her personal vlogs that segment the film into chapters--but perhaps the most illuminating moment for how technology provides support is in the film’s second scene: Kayla’s iPhone alarm wakes her up with a motivational pop song, and she brings her MacBook to the bathroom so that she can follow a make-up tutorial on YouTube while covering up blemishes (a whole essay could be written in praise of the film's radical acknowledgement of acne, but I digress). Afterwards, she returns to her bed in order to take a selfie that she captions “woke up like this” before adding it to her Snapchat story. It’s a laugh moment, for sure, but a lesser film by an older filmmaker would be mocking Kayla for this--or maybe presenting it as a character flaw to be overcome. But Eighth Grade knows that this technologically-assisted ego-boost is medicinal for Kayla, who suffers low-self-esteem as an inevitable side-effect of middle-school life--and Burham understands that this side-effect that is exponentially more pronounced for girls than it is for any of the scrawny male knuckleheads that populate the film’s sidelines.
Although I’m not too surprised to see that Burnham understands the emotional interiority of so-called “digital natives,” I am a little surprised to see him capture it in a way that’s actually cinematic. The most visually accomplished sequence of the film centers on a mundane image: Kayla sitting in bed, scrolling through her social media feeds. Burnham imbues the ritual with a sense of beauty, superimposing countless viral images and autoplaying videos over Kayla’s face seen from different angles, glowing in soft blues and pinks from the backlit screen in her otherwise dark bedroom--a type of digital womb. I seriously doubt that Bo Burnham is a student of avant-garde cinema, but that’s what I was reminded of as I watched these colorful, unintelligible images passing across the screen in a state of perpetual motion--all set to Enya’s dreamy “Orinoco Flow,” the refrain of which (“Sail away, sail away, sail away”) emphasizes the feeling of easy, gentle escape offered by cell phones to young people wishing to retreat from boredom, sadness, loneliness, or social anxiety--the real root causes of phone addiction among people of any age.
And Kayla has all these afflictions in spades--but there’s a stark contrast between her real-life experiences and her projected self online. In her personal vlogs, she offers life advice that we see her sometimes struggle to put into practice in her own social interactions: a clip of her explaining “how to put yourself out there” plays over her crying in the bathroom at another kid’s pool party, for example. Other times, however, she soars: we hear her talk about “how to be confident” as she volunteers for karaoke, and it’s a transcendent moment of actual joy and fulfillment. Because of the way the film is edited, it’s unclear whether she records these pieces of life advice before her various awkward experiences or after them, but either way, technology plays a significant role in how Kayla is developing socially: it allows her to be in dialogue with herself. Clearly, these videos are not meant for anyone else (they get less than 10 views each, yet she continues uploading them) and therefore we understand Kayla as a deeply self-reflexive character who strives for personal improvement, with her webcam serving as a kind of mirror.
In a podcast interview between Bo Burnham and Douglas Rushkoff (author of Present Shock, maybe the best book on technology I’ve ever read), Burnham talks about getting inspiration for the film by looking at real-life vlogs uploaded to YouTube by teens, saying of them:
“The majority of people on the internet are expressing themselves to no one--expressing themselves to something more like God, where it’s just this vacuum that they don’t know if it’s there or not and they’re calling out into it.”
This could not be more true of Kayla, who at one point says an actual prayer in much the same rambly, like-and-um-filled way that she delivers her vlog speeches. When the prayer was over, my wife couldn’t help but lean over in her theater seat to whisper “Gucci!”--Kayla’s trademark sign-off for each vlog; clearly, there’s a link here. In the book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, Theology professor David Dark defines religion as “the farthest-reaching readily available concept for looking hard and honestly at our own lives.” For Kayla and millions like her, the internet is just another way of doing exactly that. A vlog is a prayer. So is a podcast. Five-star reviews of my prayers only, please.
On a more macro-level, we also see Kayla use digital video to interface with her far-future self. In her final days of eighth grade, Kayla is given a time-capsule she made at the start of middle school, which includes movie tickets (to The Lego Movie and Wreck-it Ralph), a playbill (to the Broadway musical production of Bring it On), and a Spongebob-themed USB drive with a message from her younger self. Far before she plays the video, it’s clear how little the contents of the capsule mean to her anymore--it’s a bittersweet moment recognizing the loss that comes with maturity--and she ultimately decides to burn the box as a symbolic burning-off of her former self in what is perhaps the film’s most emotionally overwhelming scene. The old video, however, inspires another one, this time to her 12th grade self, implying that another quantum leap in Kayla’s growth is sure to come. It’s a heartening ending to such a cringe-filled narrative--and once again, technology serves to facilitate the growth that Kayla promises to herself.
Of course, Burnham isn’t naïve enough to suggest that the unmitigated access that middle-schoolers have to the internet is an absolute good--that much is clear from an early scene at the dinner table between Kayla and her father. At first, we don’t even know that’s where she is or whom she’s with--all we see is a shot/reverse-shot of Kayla’s iPhone and Kayla’s face as pop music blares in her headphones. But when dad tries to get her attention, the digital immersion is broken--we get a wide shot of them both, Kayla reluctantly takes out an earbud, and the sound design of the film reflects this. The two have a prolonged, circular argument because Kayla doesn’t want to talk to her father (who exclusively compliments and encourages her), and it’s an excruciating scene. We are surely meant to feel distanced from Kayla by the end of it, as evidenced by the fact that when the headphones go back in, we don’t hear the music anymore. Though we started the scene locked into her POV, we’re outside of Kayla’s subjective experience by the end of the scene, asked to judge her as callous for shutting her father out of that interiority of Kayla's that the film lets us get to know so well. (There are also plenty of moments and conversations concerned with the pressures and violations imposed upon young girls by boys online, but that's another topic worthy of a full essay.)
Crucially, Eighth Grade is not a film that sets its sights on technology itself, but rather the people who use it. I think this is illustrated wonderfully in the camerawork surrounding Kayla’s vlogs. At the beginning of the film, we only ever see these through her MacBook Air’s webcam (footage that has been downgraded to look more crunchy on a theater screen), but in the latter half of the film, we start to watch her vlogging from different angles--from the opposite corner of her room or from just over her laptop screen--which I view as a subtle, cinematic reminder to always think about technology in terms of people choosing to engage with it for a reason, rather than as an abstract entity that threatens to ruin our lives. Although Eighth Grade is notable for its rarity as a tech-positive story, it’s only able to find ways to love technology because it loves people first and foremost.