Eighth Grade review: The social horrors of adolescence

Ian Havemann, Staff Writer

Eighth Grade is comedian/actor/poet/artist Bo Burnham’s directorial debut. Anyone who is familiar with the works of Bo Burnham knows that he has always integrated some sort of existential crisis or introspective dilemma into his performances, mostly as comedic relief. His latest work, however, takes a more serious look at what goes on in the minds of today’s pubescent generation and how the internet and social media puts more pressure on an already fragile confidence.

Typically, any movies taking place in the periods of middle school to high school are filled with overdone stereotypes, exaggerated teenage behavior and pitiful attempts to relate to the young crowd through the misuse of memes that producers don’t understand. It is with great relief that I am able to say Eighth Grade could not be farther from this description.

The story follows eighth grader Kayla Day navigating the anxiety-ridden battlefield of puberty, social status and self-growth. Posting weekly self-help YouTube videos with titles like “Being Yourself” and “Putting Yourself Out There” to an audience of no one, Kayla finds herself struggling to follow her own advice. However, it’s these introspective boundaries that Kayla has to push through, and only then does she realize just how difficult it is to “Be Yourself.”

It seems counter-intuitive that a young teenager apprehensive about expressing herself among her peers would be the one projecting herself online for anyone to see, and that’s just the point. The internet resembles somewhat of a stage: a platform where you can express yourself without direct, face-to-face criticism. This is not unlike how Bo Burnham got his stardom; he was also once an introvert posting silly songs onto YouTube. The only difference here is that Burnham raked in millions of views and accidentally started a decade-long career of performing.

Burnham’s own feelings of anxiety at a young age are clearly seeping through on-screen given his own experience in middle school and high school, which is also expressed in his song “Nerds”.

Anxiety is a language, people without it can’t get it.” Burnham said in a 2018 Rolling Stones article, “In high school, I was in and out of the hospital because they thought I had some like stomach disease … I was just nervous. Every day. And that’s why I was, like, on the toilet. I know I have a legitimate anxiety disorder.”

This film expresses the feeling of anxiety and self-doubt with Bo Burnham’s signature style of realness and absurdity. There are scenes where Kayla attempts to make small talk with the “popular kids” at her school, and I cringed so hard my shoulders hit the ceiling. This relatable aspect of the film is what completely immerses you. Making these socially awkward events so agonizing to watch makes Kayla’s triumphs so much more gratifying when they happen. I found myself raising one fist in the air when Kayla mustered up enough confidence to wear a one-piece swimsuit to a pool party.

One scene in particular pretty much encapsulates the causation of Kayla’s actions and feeling towards the world around her. She sits with a group of high schoolers at a mall cafeteria when one of them asks what grade she first downloaded Snapchat. She responds, “fifth grade”, and half of the table loses their mind, saying Kayla is wired differently because of it. This is something Burnham genuinely believes.

The big cultural things that would make generations feel different – We had rotary phones,” Burnham mentioned in the Rolling Stones,those things happen every two years now. All of a sudden it goes from Instagram 7.6 to 7.7 … and the brain chemistry of an entire generation was just altered slightly.”

It is no surprise that Burnham hides a deeper thought-provoking meaning underneath his work that he wants audiences to know. But don’t let that make you think Kayla ends up throwing her phone out a window like a purified happily-ever-after convert. Moving past social anxiety is an uphill battle, and this film shows that it’s not only possible but also that you’re not alone.

Being an independent movie, it may be a little bit of a drive to catch this film, but believe me when I say it’s worth every minute of the drive. Especially if you’re a personal Bo Burnham fan. The theaters around Elgin showing Eighth Grade include The Wilmette Theatre in Wilmette, Century 12 Evanston/CineArts 6 in Evanston and Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Chicago. I know that I will be buying the DVD when it is released on Oct. 9.

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