Middle School Memories: Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" at Cinetopia
I saw nine films over four days at Southeast Michigan's annual Cinetopia film festival, beating my record of eight last year. While I enjoyed many of movies, the one I truly loved was opening night’s Eighth Grade.
The film follows 13-year-old Kayla during her final week of middle school as she tries to overcome her classmate’s perception of her as shy. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance and is Bo Burnham’s directorial debut. If you recognize that name, it may be from Burnham’s early 2000s YouTube videos, successful comedy specials, or supporting roles in recent films including The Big Sick and Rough Night.
Burnham was in attendance and introduced the film as being about what it is like to be an eighth grader, specifically one during our current digital era. Technology does play a large role in the film, but I was relieved the to find it wasn’t used as a means to ridicule the younger generation. The film is not a PSA to make parent’s fearful of what their children are doing on the internet. Instead, it shows how middle school still maintains many of the same social dynamics as previous generations. Students still face the same anxieties and uncertainties when trying to forge their own identity. So while the film’s protagonist, Kayla, does make YouTube videos about her day-to-day life they act similar to a diary, especially since no one is watching them. Like much social media content, she glosses over her difficulties, instead putting a positive spin on being mostly ignored by her classmates. I can imagine her looking back at them when she is older, thankful to have made it through middle school.
I don’t know anyone who is itching to reenter the headspace of a 13-year-old, but that’s exactly where Eighth Grade takes you. The film uses Kayla’s missteps and attempts at socializing for humor without belittling her. It’s cringe comedy with empathy. Precise details in the film brought memories of my adolescence rushing back as if Burnham had done an anthropological study of my own eighth-grade class. There are blink-and-you-miss-it shots of kids flipping their eyelids inside-out to make their classmates squeal, assembling towers of markers by attaching them end to end, and notes carefully folded into triangles. In the confusion of middle school Kayla tries to put herself out there, and as she tells her webcam, sometimes you have to fake confidence until you truly feel it. The film is a reminder that somewhere deep down we are all still a little bit of an eighth grader.
The screening included a question-and-answer portion with Burnham himself and he addressed why he chose to center the film on a young girl. The level of detail in the film reflects Burnham’s diligence: He watched hundreds of videos made by preteens, but “the boys talk about Minecraft and the girls bare their souls.” Kayla made a better subject. While Burnham said his script included almost all of stuttered, flustered dialogue that Fisher recites as Kayla, he made sure to stress that the film would not be what it is without Fisher’s portrayal. They auditioned countless preteen actresses, but Fisher was the only one to bring Kayla to life. While others fit the role when casually talking before the audition began they could never capture that same nervous energy while acting. Fisher was the only one who could “maintain her chaos.”
Eighth Grade doesn’t have an extreme dramatic arc, it’s small in scale, revolving around one week in a middle schooler’s life, but it is authentic and compassionate. It serves as a reminder that we all are trying to find our place in the world, just hopefully not quite as wildly as all the hormonal eighth graders out there.
Katrina Shafer is a desk clerk with the Ann Arbor District Library.
"Eighth Grade" will open for wide release on July 13.