For years, the work of John Hughes and films like Mean Girls and Easy A were representative of so-called “teen movies.” This was an era in which teenagers were portrayed by adults, and an era where teens were made to fit Hollywood standards of beauty on screen, creating a dishonest and inauthentic representation of the teen experience. The success of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade proves that audiences crave the authenticity that’s been lacking for so long, and by providing it, the film ends the stereotypical portrayal of teenagers.
Through fresh writing and direction, Burnham explores the day-to-day events in the life of a teenager in her last week of middle school. Kayla’s story is told, in small part, through unconventional means: she uses a gritty MacBook webcam to record daily “life hack” videos for her YouTube channel. Burnham’s cleverly written script is elevated by Elsie Fisher’s affecting lead performance. Being a teenager herself, Fisher is able to embody the natural qualities and insecurities experienced at that age. She captures awkward self-consciousness in such a raw way, and with an authenticity that’s lacking in prior genre movies. And for what just might be the very first time, this genre film presents a teenager with acne, which shatters Hollywood’s old standards of beauty. Kayla’s father and friends remind her that she’s a kind, awesome person — personality traits that can often be forgotten at that age. Teenagers are so concentrated on impressing other people — whether it be putting on a full face of makeup to get the most likes or lying about themselves — that they forget being authentic is what matters. It’s a toxic culture that Burnham captures brilliantly.
All the pressures that leave students hyperventilating in the bathroom at lunch are on display in Eighth Grade — the pressure to fit a certain standard, the pressure to look a certain way and, of course, the pressure of sex. Kayla’s embarrassment over not having experienced anything with a boy is, unfortunately, something most teenagers deal with. Things are made harder for Kayla because of her shyness and her inability to make friends easily. The loneliness she feels heightens her insecurity and the need to impress others because she feels that’s the only way she’ll make friends. But as the film progresses, Kayla changes and realizes her self-worth.
The biggest change to modern teenage life is social media. With the use of platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, there are new pressures that teenagers never had before. It’s a different environment now, but despite that, some aspects of teenage life remain the same. No matter what audiences’ personal experiences are, they’re bound to find themselves in Kayla as Eighth Grade takes viewers back to a rather awkward and stressful time. And Burnham offers plenty of laughs along the way, too.
Sara Clements (@mildredsfierce) is a freelance writer and journalism major based in Canada. She’s also an editor for Much Ado About Cinema. Sara loves film of varying genres, but her penchant lies with Classic Hollywood.