Middle school years are those perilous, prolonged snapshots that define an age in every teenage girl’s life that is mutually agreed upon by all to never, ever speak of ever again. This is the first rule the new feature film “Eighth Grade” breaks.
In Bo Burnham’s debut film, released July 13 in limited theaters in Atlanta, the struggles, stumbles and stutters that define the contemporary coming of age of today’s social-media-obsessed youth are explored unabashed in all their painfully cringe-worthy glory.
On its surface, the film comes off as another droning, dragging, based-on-true-stories adaptation of the trials and tribulations of an unremarkable white girl’s coming of age set against the riveting terrain of an undefinable suburbia.
On a deeper level, “Eighth Grade” explores the nuances and struggles of growing up in an increasingly digital landscape. The film orients that age-long search for individual identity in the context of a generation defined by the shallow, fabricated highlights of life posted on social media platforms that are revered like modern-day shrines to the holy.
The narrative is told entirely from the main character Kayla’s perspective, confining the film’s world to her own self-concerned bubble. One could argue it creates an unreliable narrative, as everything the viewer sees and experiences is from her perspective. We see the world as it affects her, and nobody else. That must happen off screen. But here, right now, the world quite literally revolves around Kayla.
In this, the film employs an interesting unique tactic: Instead of slowly building the world of Kayla, it takes time to craft a portrait of her, a blurred impressionistic snapshot of who she is in that moment, in transition to the next moment in her life.
In fact, the film feels more like a snapshot more than anything with no defined beginning or ending. We jump straight into Kayla’s life without context and then are dragged along on her journey to self discovery, in which she doesn’t discover all that much.
Perhaps this is why Kayla’s character is not only mediocre, but also forgettable. So forgettable, in fact, that immediately after leaving the theatre, she became another faceless, nameless protagonist to me. This gives testament to just how ordinary her character is — we could see a Kayla passing us on the street easily, or as the self-conscious little sister of a friend. And that may just be the point.
Kayla’s commonplace character is what makes the most painful moments of the film relatable to the audience. They become so relatable that you feel that itchy, persistent feeling begin to crawl beneath your skin — the urge to cry, or to cringe, because you understand all too well what’s playing out on screen.
But here’s the thing about Kayla’s all-too-relatable character: We don’t want to relate. We don’t want to feel what she feels or experience what she experiences. We don’t want to be her. Because at some point, we already were. That feeling of awkwardness, restlessness, that social anxiety and alienation that comes with longing for a human connection, a place in a world: It’s something that made up a snapshot in our lives, too, one we rather not replay for the second time around.
Look, I’m not going to call this film beautiful or heart wrenching or poignant. That is what every 30-year-old reviewer will be spewing in the articles that other 30-year-olds will read, and then woo and rave about. For me, a girl who’s 17, on the cusp of adulthood, yet not quite there, I know what it means to be in transition, to be caught between a longing for change and a devastation for all the experiences that die undone as I move on to the next moments of my life. And I want to thank God that, for all the people I was and I have become, that that pimply, silly girl just on the brink of teenage hood is dead and gone, because with her come the memories that are painful to this day.
And yet in experiencing this film, I am reminded of that 13-year-old girl who still flinches when she stutters over a word, who apologizes for anything and everything, and is terrified that she’s always going to be as alone as she is now, because, in my heart of hearts, she lives on.
And so, this film is not an escapist’s paradise or a dreamer’s feature film fantasy. It’s a harsh reminder of the little girls that stay behind even as we move onto the next moments of our lives. It becomes a reflection on the past, while also instilling an understanding that in the transition to the next chapter in life, newer, better things are promised. And for those girls-on-the-brink like myself, this film is a way to look back over our shoulders at the past to the memories of the people we were, only to realize that they never really left us.
Erin is a 17-year-old senior at North Cobb High School. She is a journalist, photographer and creative, deeply invested and engaged in Atlanta’s local art scene.