Awkwardness, anxiety and authenticity in teenage drama 'Eighth Grade'

29 Apr 2019 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

6 mins
Eighth Grade
Eighth Grade

Acclaimed and much-anticipated, Eighth Grade is a coming-of-age comedy-drama from comedian, YouTuber and first-time filmmaker Bo Burnham which paints a realistic picture of what it's like to be a teenager in the modern world.

13 year-old Kayla is an awkward, introverted adolescent who is attempting to negotiate the final days of her last year at a New York middle school, before moving on to the daunting-yet-exciting world of high school - a whole new chapter in her life - which represents different opportunities. Kayla is, in many ways, representative of so many teenagers: she is almost always embarrassed to be around her father, is anxious in social situations, is afraid she won't fit in, and is desperate to self-improve in order to be liked more.

The main way she expresses herself - despite her apparently timid personality - is by taking to YouTube to vlog to her peers… unconcerned as to how many of them - if any - are watching. She covers topics such as ‘being yourself', ‘putting yourself out there', ‘how to be confident' and ‘growing up'. Though Kayla's attempt to demonstrate a maturity wise beyond her years doesn't quite convince as much as she may intend, these vlogs are still a crucial outlet for her self-expression and self-acceptance. And while social media and new technology play a pivotal part in the story, it isn't presented as a negative influence, nor is it the only thing that defines the lives of these kids.

These vlogs are, however, a double-edged sword for Kayla: they perfectly convey the pressure she puts upon herself to be liked, to be interesting, and to put herself out there; a burden, rather than a kindness. Kayla's attitude is admirable; she doesn't shirk away from attempted self-improvement, and is courageous in the things she takes on, but she sets her future-self up for disappointment - quite literally, as it turns out, in the form of a video diary she records. We see her writing a list of ‘things I want', such as "more confidence" and "more friends" accompanied by a column of ‘how to get them', with notes such as "smile more" and "speak louder". Despite all her good intentions, she never allows herself the room to fail, or be flawed. And she should.

Bo Burnham's directorial debut is a fascinating combination of these timeless coming-of-age tropes and rite-of-passage experiences - uncomfortable birthday parties, first-time sexual encounters, awkward dinner table conversations with parents (see Sixteen CandlesMean GirlsLady Bird et al.) - and a modernity that speaks to the here and now of this generation, and their unique experience of what it is to be a teenager in 2019, especially in the US. And so while technology forms part of the equation, so do things like gun culture. There is a scene, chilling in the mundanity of its execution for British audiences, in which Kayla and her classmates must rehearse the protocol for a school shooting. This is scary not only because of its status as a necessary tool for young Americans, but just how commonplace and everyday it appears to be to the rehearsing children.

There is a growing trend within coming-of-age films to depict a more authentic reality within their narratives, rather than the flight-of-fancy found in classics like John Hughes' Ferris Bueller's Day Off or seminal 1990s high-school comedy Clueless, for instance. The Edge of Seventeen is the best example of this in recent times, with its protagonist - high-schooler Nadine - is clearly struggling with mental health difficulties and a lack of friendships in her everyday life, just as Kayla is in Eighth Grade. Neither film paints a prettier picture of modern life than is actually the case - Eighth Grade is particularly noteworthy for the lack of makeup worn by its protagonist for which its predecessors have often been criticised for - and both, hearteningly, put rich and layered young female characters at the centre of their stories.

And yet while these stories are predominantly about teenage girls, they are not solely for them. Eighth Grade is incredibly important, and hopefully empowering, for anyone, regardless of gender, age, sexuality or ethnicity, and timely reminders to be found for anyone who views it. For instance, a particularly uncomfortable scene which takes place in a car sees Kayla put under pressure by an older boy, reminiscent of a very similar scene in The Edge of Seventeen. Thankfully, both protagonists are empowered enough to put an end to each situation, though each scenario is a stark reminder of the pressures that often come along with sexual maturity. Though there are other male (and female) characters who are not presented all too positively in Eighth Grade, the film reminds us that it's important to find those who are worth caring about, whether in the form of mentor-turned-friend Olivia - who offers Kayla tangible proof of a better future - or dorky Gabe, a male version of herself as she currently is, and someone who she can geek out to Rick & Morty with.

After all, Eighth Grade is ultimately a hopeful film. For as Kayla says…

Just because things are happening to you right now, doesn't mean they're always going to happen to you…

Kayla in 'Eighth Grade'
Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator (Learning)

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

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