• Kyndall Cunningham

'Eighth Grade' is a refreshing take on modern girls

Updated: Dec 9, 2018

Photo courtesy: The Chicago Reader

Narratives about girls and technology typically exhaust me. On any given day, you can turn on your television and see a news segment or panel discussion on the correlation between Snapchat filters and photo-altering apps like FaceTune and girls’ self-esteem. Documentaries such as Sexy Baby, Miss Representation and Netflix’s Hot Girls Wanted lament on the hypersexualiziation of young women via the influence of pornography and sexy music videos. Not to mention, there are a countless number of studies you can access through Google examining the decline in mental health for girls who use social media apps like Instagram and Twitter regularly.

These discussions are obviously important as women and girls are the primary users of online social networks and are, therefore, overwhelmingly targeted by corporate media in many ways that are toxic. But so often, our culture seems solely fixated on how girls utilize their screens and not boys, all to say that girls are innately superficial creatures who take selfies all day and are desperate for approval. Additionally, this hyperfocus on female adolescent behavior perpetuates the idea that young women lack proper judgement.

Needless to say, it’s the reason why I was immediately wary when I heard about comedian Bo Burnham’s debut feature film Eighth Grade which features a white girl taking a selfie on the poster. Already, I envisioned a suburban Lifetime film where the main protagonist loses her innocence to the adult trappings of online life, taking half-naked photos and sending them to boys at her school. Inevitably, her world comes crashing down (someone violates her somehow) until her parents orchestrate an intervention about self-love and the dangers of social media. Fortunately, Burnham deliberately strays from that tired narrative, creating a realistic portrait of teen life without victimizing then pathologizing modern girls.

The 90-minute film follows Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a shy, quiet girl who lives with her father, in the last two weeks before she graduates middle school. She yearns to make friends and interact with her classmates but struggles to express herself due to her chronic anxiety. Despite her lack of social skills, she delivers advice via YouTube on how to “be yourself,” “put yourself” and “be confident,” as if to perform her hopes and dreams into existence.

We witness the omnipresence of Kayla’s anxiety not just at school but in her bedroom, her kitchen, in a photo booth, in a bathroom, in car rides and nearly every space she inhabits. Occasionally, she decides be confident. (In one of her vlogs, she says that “confidence is a choice”). In one scene, she performs karaoke at a pool party. And in another, she approaches the boy she likes. But those moments are short-lived, and she’s never rewarded for trying.

Eighth Grade laments on the labor of human connection that sometimes has to nothing to do with knowing how to communicate with others (or which medium you communicate through) but finding people who are willingly to listen. We also see this labor demonstrated by Kayla’s loving father who can’t get her to open up. The film paints Kayla as a kind, smart, well-intentioned girl who is capable of being befriended by the right group of people. But she only approaches the popular girls at her school, who constantly reject her. Presumably, the main reason Kayla is most vibrant in front of a camera is because she doesn’t have to do the additional work of maintaining someone’s attention. Not everyone has the patience to find out who introverted girls like Kayla really are, but this film does. And Burnham uses a empathetic, nuanced lens to explore her.

As writer and director, Burnham, whose career started on YouTube, makes a series of smart choices from beginning to end. First, the actors playing children are actually children, which seems like a given, but filmmakers rarely employ authentic casting in teen movies. It’s refreshing, in this format, to see pubescent bodies with baby fat and acne instead of immaculately developed 20-somethings. Like most great stories, the exactness or specificity of the narrative allows the entire film to breathe, whether it be the short span of time we are observing Kayla or the fact we’re solely observing her experience and not that of an ensemble. Additionally, Burnham avoids the torture-porn tropes that male auteurs often utilize to evoke empathy for female protagonists. Kayla doesn’t experience degradation at the hands of her classmates. She’s simply ignored. While there is a scene where an older boy tries to manipulate her, she’s never physically violated, but we feel for her in the same capacity.

Eighth Grade ultimately feels like a lesson in observing young people in order to understand them. Oftentimes, adults make judgments about kids and technology without taking actual inventory of what they're doing and what they're experiencing. This film erases some of the hysteria by acknowledging, as Burnham puts it, "the well of humanity" that exists online and myriad of ways young people integrate social media in their daily lives, that is often quite innocuous. More than anything, Eighth Grade proves that, no matter what age we are or what apps we use, we're all just trying to be our best selves.