In Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade, the audience meets Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) and is thrown back into the world of middle school. It’s a cringe-worthy trip down memory lane, but it also introduced the new reality that tweens are living in: one with modern technology.
The film opens with a bombardment of technology: Kayla making a vlog, watching makeup tutorials, scrolling on Twitter, sending Snapchats and messaging classmates on Instagram. It’s an incredibly insightful and frankly overwhelming look into what it means to be a young person in the digital age. Having the same Internet access as someone well beyond the middle school years can sometimes be too much, but often times we forget that we are in the midst of a generation that hasn’t known a world where such mediums didn’t exist. There is one scene where a high schooler comments on Kayla and her peers’ digital connection stating, “they’re a different generation… they’re wired differently.” The other teens at the table disregard him and tell him that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but that one statement defines what it means to be Kayla and the millions of 13-year-olds she represents.
It’s easy to see the deep, inexorable relationship between the kids and their devices and start to groan. We can’t imagine being them and want to mock their dependence on technology when in actuality it’s simply a consequence of the age we live in. Older generations are quick to be bewildered by the youth culture and either make fun of it while failing to recognize the massive effect it has, or use it to pander to tweens, who are smarter than adults are willing to give them credit for. No one in the film stops to wonder what consequences of being plugged-in from birth has and the challenges it presents. That’s what we as the audience are meant to take away. Imagine trying to be yourself when everyone around you is trying to be someone else on social media. It’s the same preoccupation of wanting to fit in that children have experienced for millennia, but with the added hurdle of having a second, digital world to woo.
While the technological minefields make being a young person in the modern world hard enough, the film also boldly explores the other treacheries that come with being a child in the 21st century. One scene opens with a school shooting simulation and another with a school lockdown drill. The worst nightmare for anyone in a school setting is used as a backdrop for casual conversation and light flirting. The students are completely desensitized and it actually bores them; it’s commonplace. Just as much as they’ve become unaffected by violence – actual, real violence not in a video game – they are also very sexually aware. The constant exposure to and from the Internet has made sex become as easy as a quick YouTube search and something much more than just a concept: there are 13-year-olds discussing and engaging in mature sexual interactions. The kids aren’t taught about any of these things seriously; it’s just at their disposal to do with what they will.
What sticks out most is the way that the adults in Kayla’s life don’t treat her or raise her any differently than how they or anyone in the audience was generally raised. The tweens and budding teens of today have been thrust into this world that’s taken adults decades to get their heads around and are still trying to figure out. It’s a weird, scary time to be a kid, but we’re not changing the way we see young people. Eighth Grade was a strikingly genuine, authentic vignette that explored the mind of a young girl who was trying to find her way into something better for herself. The emotions that she feels are real, strong and isolating, but there’s nothing on the great big Web that teaches her how to be her. She sets out to make videos about the lessons she’s learned and be her own change in the world. However, this film has served to show me and should have shown everyone, that kids are people too and need to be treated with love, respect and dignity. You don’t have to be spectacular to have someone think you’re awesome, you just have to be yourself. It’s the lesson the audience desperately wants Kayla to learn throughout the whole film. Her dad loves her wholeheartedly and tries his hardest to show her how cool she is, but she resists him. She doesn’t see it in herself and worries that she can’t be someone that is special to anyone. Confidence and self-acceptance is not a common thing to find when you’re 13 and it only gets harder when you get older. Kids need to know they are important against all the noise and social media buzz that attempts to tell them otherwise.
Ultimately, the film tells us that middle school has remained frighteningly the same institution it always has been. A place where kids: are terrified of pool parties, hang out with their crush for the first time, hang out at the food court at the mall for fun, go to pointless school assemblies, sniff markers, and need a hug from their parent. Some things never change, but when they do, they really do. After seeing Eighth Grade, you’ll think back fondly on your middle school years, and also be really glad you never have to go through them again.