I love a good coming-of-age story. Catcher in the Rye, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Moonrise Kingdom are all books and movies that have stayed with me, long after the end credits, long after the turn of the last page. There is something so honest and raw with growing up and the transition from childhood to adulthood and all the fear, excitement, and anxiety that comes with it. It has been a while since I was purview to a good coming-of-age story, that is, until I watched Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade which is a delectable narrative on the anxieties and fears of an 8th-grade girl in today’s digital age.
In recent times, there have been several movies and TV series which target generation Z and the problems that are unique to that generation, specifically, growing up under the lens of social media. While they have been great in their own right, I found Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade a more natural take that makes it relatable not only to current 8th graders in America and the West but to a wider universal audience. I doubt I’m alone in this, anyway, considering the show has an incredible 99% rating on the critically acclaimed review-aggregation website, Rotten Tomatoes. If this review does not make you get up and watch it, perhaps that Rotten Tomatoes rating will.
The movie Eighth Grade follows Kayla in her last few days of middle school. Kayla is shy, reserved and is seen to be ignored by her classmates. She is without friends and spends most of her time in school, on her phone, or making YouTube videos (I will return to this in a bit). Like any other teenager or even most 20-year-olds for that matter, her phone and social media are her life. Scrolling through Instagram (Facebook is irrelevant to that generation) takes up a huge chunk of her time, and it is also viewed as a means to make friends. By commenting on pictures, Kayla hopes to form friendships. Burnham, throughout the movie, takes several digs on how we allow social media to place these unprecedented expectations on ourselves and to govern our happiness. A case in point is when Kayla wakes up early in the morning and proceeds to apply makeup on herself, guided by a makeup tutorial on YouTube, and then goes back to her bed to take a selfie and caption it as, “ I just woke up like this. Ugh.”
Kayla at school is quiet and nervous. Kayla on her YouTube channel is a lot more confident and full of life, even if her sentences are almost always punctuated with umms, like, and a series of hand gestures that tend to signal anxiousness. Only through the videos can we actually give Kayla a more in-depth character analysis and even then it is not fully developed. Maybe that was intentional, though? After all, Kayla is far from growing up and is still taking baby steps into adulthood. For a thirteen-year-old Kayla is insightful and deep as she explores topics such as, “Be Yourself” and “Putting Yourself Out There”, topics which broach on self-care, which is another heavily discussed area of interest these days.
If Kayla did have a viewership, they would possibly be amazed by how put together she seemed on the screen. Which is how we all like to project ourselves on social media. The reality is almost always far from it. Kayla’s reality is rather lonesome where a craving for an escape from the current reality into a virtual one is evident in almost every conversation and action. Kayla struggles as she longs to be herself with her own personality (we see this strongly in all her videos), but fails to find her place amongst her peers. Learning who you are and accepting it would have fit in perfectly with any other coming-of-age story, but that does not seem to be applicable to the current teenage generation where “cool” is majorly defined by what you do and what you buy, and it is even more pre-determined than it was for other generations. With your life being under a microscope always, being yourself must be achingly difficult.
Kayla is riddled with anxiety, and the universal problems of being that awkward girl with a crush on the good-looking boy of the class and wanting to be friends with the popular girls are all part of her life; along with a strained relationship with a father who is at a loss trying to understand the digital generation. These predicaments have plagued so many adolescent lives for generations, but Kayla has the additional burden of yielding to a digital authority that accompanies her 24×7, 365 days a year.
Bo Burnham touches delicately on many other social ills, more specifically of American society. While most movies would show a fire drill being performed in a school, Burnham depicts a drill on the occasion of a shooting at the school. What is troubling in that scene is how nonchalant everyone was, like we would be during a fire drill, except this is a school shooting which should not be something that becomes commonplace to minds as young as theirs or anyone for that matter. The students are seen to be on their phones through the entire drill with almost bored expressions and Kayla even finds time to make her way to her crush to point blank tell him she has a gallery full of nude photos she’s willing to share with a boyfriend. The scene is troubling not only for the casual tone that these kids have adopted for a scenario with a school shooter, but also that more and more girls believe that their bodies and “putting out” is the only way to get a boy’s attention.
To this point in the movie, we only see Kayla trying hard to fit in with her peers, to the extent that she plays with the idea of sending nude pictures to a boy in her class. Kayla asserts her real identity in her real life when she is put in an uncomfortable position with a boy. On a visit to the high school, Kayla forms a friendship with her senior tour guide, Olivia. Kayla even goes and hangs out with Olivia and her senior friends at the mall, and you can only imagine what being acknowledged by people who were cool and older felt like to a young girl who didn’t have any friends. On the ride home, Kayla is left alone with a boy who proceeds to try and take advantage of her youth and naiveté. How the scene unfurls is a situation that too many people can relate to. After several attempts of trying to coerce Kayla in to sexually engaging with him and failing, he proceeds to emotionally manipulate her into believing that he is only trying to do her a favour by ensuring she wasn’t losing her virginity to someone less worthy, and he was, in fact, the saint in this situation. Kayla, full of shame and fear, is barely able to cough up words and responses, while her innocence implodes around her.
This incident and all her experiences of the year catapult her into taking her baby steps into the threshold of adulthood. It took several ugly incidences and breaking points, but in the end, Kayla was able to finally break free from the shackles she placed on herself. She gains a renewed perspective that is wise and insightful, and similar to the Kayla we saw in her YouTube videos; only this time she was allowing that person to be her real-life personality too; even if it meant she couldn’t be the coolest girl in the world by society standards.
Eighth Grade is delightful with the nostalgia it brings, as well as a more acute awareness of the anxiety-ridden digital obsessed generation. At 25, I still feel the pinch of social media and the pressure it brings along with it, I can only imagine what growing up with a microscopic lens on you before you are even able to form a real idea of yourself would be like.
Author: Camilla Lyndem
Camilla Ann Lyndem is a Staff Writer. Based in Bengaluru, she is a graduate of St.Stephen’s College, Delhi, where she completed her Undergraduate and Postgraduate degree in English Literature.Although a hardcore liberal arts student, she enjoys coding and has worked on building smart models, including a smart irrigation system (take that, CS students).