Eighth Grade won’t leave you longing to repeat middle school, but it might leave you enthralled with its young star and its 27-year-old director/scriptwriter, a guy who sang his way to YouTube stardom while still in high school, then skipped a spot at NYU to become a stand-up comic.
Angst, Angst and more Angst. Prepare to be angst-ed throughout the film, because what else is middle school besides raging hormones, self-doubt, acne, social cliques, and exasperating parents and teachers/principals who don’t seem to have a clue? School work, maybe? Please. This film deals with the important stuff.
Kayla wakes up in the morning, turns to her cell phone and records herself. She’s filming a motivational video for her YouTube channel, and this one she calls Being Yourself. Her observations seem spot-on and even helpful: “Being yourself can be hard. . .You need to face your fears and let people get to know the real you.” But some of her advice makes you wonder where she’s coming from: “People suck and evil people exist. Just ignore them.” After stammering out her wisdom with lots of ers, ums and likes, she reminds her viewers to share and subscribe to and above all “like” her channel, and then signs off with the catchphrase “Gucci!” (whatever that means because it doesn’t look like Kayla is into designer labels.) Now for the sad news. Kayla has no followers. She is the last person who should be giving self-help advice because this is her last week of eighth grade and she doesn’t have a single friend apart from her single dad, who is almost as awkward as she is when trying to figure out what his daughter is really thinking/doing and then trying to connect with her.
But don’t despair. Along with all that angst, there’s plenty of humor. There are also sweet and uplifting moments (just a few) that never feel saccharine because of great acting and the realness of the characters and because, well, there’s so much angst to counterbalance them.
Even if you were one of the cool kids in middle school, you might have grown up to have kids who weren’t. To take it one step farther, even if you were once a one percenter in the Most Popular Crowd–a cool kid who could barely tolerate the presence of your painfully awkward adolescent classmates–chances are good that you’ve evolved. Life has a way of evening out the playing field by randomly doling out financial set-backs, health problems, career implosions, ego-bruising break-ups with friends and lovers, and family tragedies. (Have I missed anything?) Life smacks me and you and him and her: it’s only a matter of when and how often. But anxious eighth graders don’t know this yet, that there’s also bad with every really good life. Their world is that small, even with all their access to social media. One of the great things about this film is that it transcends the eighth grade experience and all of middle school, for that matter. Pick a year when you or someone you cared about were nearly straightjacketed by anxiety, and this film will bring you back. Bo Burnham, the 27-year-old writer/director knows all about anxiety. It didn’t happen when he was in middle school, nor when he became a YouTube sensation in high school. Five years ago he was doing his stand-up schtick at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe when his first panic attack reared its ugly specter. The next one was in front of a crowd of 3,000 in Providence, Rhode Island. As he told The New Yorker in an interview in July, “Being in the real world with anxiety feels like you’re riding a bull and everyone else is an equestrian.” So he ended up making a film about anxiety, but he set it in eighth grade.
“There are a lot of high school movies and not a lot of middle school movies,” he explained. In middle school, “You’re trying to become an adult, but you’re really a child. Your body’s exploding and your mind is mashed potatoes. It’s crazy.”–Bo Burnham, in a July interview with Variety.
In other words, anxiety in middle school is almost a given–not necessarily a full-blown psychiatric disorder–so some kids handle it better than others. In middle school, for example, the sight of a crush brings on an adrenalin surge equivalent to a stampeding herd of elephants. Kayla’s crush in the film is Aiden, voted “Best Eyes” by the students in the “8th Grade Superlatives” awards, even though he’d easily win for “Best Totally Flat Expression” if there were such a superlative. Kayla, to her dismay, is voted “Most Quiet.” Whenever Kayla sees Aiden, electronic music thumps, pounds and jumps to a volume that’s off the charts. It’s very funny, but, at the same time, we feel her wild hope; we feel her body exploding with adolescent passion.
At school Kayla isn’t bullied, but she’s pretty much ignored–or dismissed when she tries to engage with her cooler classmates. At an eighth grade assembly, the students receive their time capsule boxes that they created in sixth grade to greet their older selves. All the hopes and dreams Kayla had for herself seem to have gone up in flames. But she doesn’t quit. She keeps making those motivational videos that nobody watches, and she tries to take some of her own advice. At a pool party for Kennedy–cool girl supreme–Kayla plunges in, looking and feeling awkward, but is largely ignored. She’s only there because Kennedy’s mom forced her to invite Kayla to the party, and Kennedy does nothing to make her feel welcome, even sneering “What’s this?” when she opens Kayla’s birthday present. At one point in the party, Kayla takes her own advice from the video she’s made that day, Putting Yourself Out There, and grabs the Karaoke mike and performs for the group. The scene is filmed in slow motion and we don’t hear her singing–just the musical score in the background–and while it’s clear her audience isn’t paying attention, it’s also clear that Kayla is enjoying herself in the moment, just by putting herself out there.
For all the students at Kayla’s middle school, social media seems to be the dominant force in their lives. They’re tethered to their cell phones like an IV they don’t dare pull out. It’s their life line. Elsie Fisher was fourteen when she made the film–the age of a real eighth grader–and she has this to say about social media:
“It’s its own thing. It’s not bad or good. It’s both.”–Elsie Fisher in a July video interview with director Bo Burnham, hosted by Variety
Wise words, particularly from a girl who says she’s had her own anxiety issues in school. And she’s amazing in this film, now considered her break-out role. Before this she was best known as the voice of Agnes in the Despicable Me movies. Elsie’s somewhat older director had this to say on the subject of social media:
“You want to swear on television, you have to go in front of Congress. But, if you want to change the neurochemistry of an entire generation, it can be, you know, nine people in Silicon Valley.”–Bo Burnham speaking recently at the Social Innovation Summit, a two-day conference in San Francisco
Yes, there is bad and the potential for more. On the other hand, good things happened to Bo Burnham thanks to social media. YouTube was less than two years old when he wrote and posted a satirical song that was intended for his older brother, who was away at college. It ended up going viral. So he wrote another song. By the time he was trying to decide which college to attend (Harvard, Brown or NYU), a Hollywood agent called and offered to represent him. In addition to his stand-up shows, he’s had a Netflix special, directed a couple of music videos and starred in a short-lived TV sitcom. I first saw him in a movie I liked very much, The Big Sick, in which he had a small role as a comedian. He took a break from stand-up work because of his panic attacks but has started venturing back. He’s said that the fact that his anxiety issues are out in the open has helped him feel less stress in front of a crowd. And now this first-time director has given us a sensitive take on an ordinary girl trying to get past her awkwardness, make a friend or two, and become at least a little bit amazing.
Social media isn’t going away. The adult world could be doing more to protect our kids and to counsel them about its dangers. In the meantime, if only every middle school student could start their day with the mantra Be nice, Be nice, Be nice. It probably wouldn’t be any more successful than Just Say No to Drugs, but um, er, I mean, like, wouldn’t it be wonderful if it could?
I don’t want to reveal the ending of the film, except to say that it’s a winner. Awkward, sweet, almost embarrassing to ‘eavesdrop in on’, it’s full of hope.