Eighth Grade is the writing/directing debut of comedian and actor Bo Burnham. The film excels at placing one inside the world of an eighth-grade girl by highlighting the perspective of the main character, Kayla. Kayla is portrayed by Elsie Fisher, who had just finished eighth grade herself the summer she filmed this movie. As a result, Fisher’s Kayla is incredibly authentic and relatable.
Poised on the brink of entering high school, Kayla is repeatedly compared to others in the film, from her fifth-grade self about to enter middle school to high schoolers debating whether or not they are a “generation” ahead of her. Ultimately the entire film implies a comparison between Kayla’s experiences and our own, presuming those watching the film have already gone through eighth grade. If this film resonates with you at all, it is probably because you see some part of yourself in Kayla. Not everyone will relate fully to her, but there is enough universality here that most viewers will likely find strong commonality in Kayla’s emotional highs, lows, anxieties, awkwardness, desire to fit in, and embarrassing dad.
Burnham’s directorial instincts pay off, particularly through his partnership with cinematographer Andrew Wehde. Their choices to shoot so many close ups of Kayla helps to connect us with Kayla’s point of view early on. It continues to be a unifying strength throughout the film, allowing the audience to experience Kayla’s every awkward emotion as it flies across her face. In one scene of nervous excitement, the camera follows Kayla tightly as she paces back and forth rapidly while talking on the phone. This harried, repetitive movement stirs up the same emotions in the audience that Kayla is experiencing, drawing us deeper into her world with every frame.
Kayla’s POV is also used to highlight her interaction with social media. We are inundated as Kayla is with an almost nonstop barrage of YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter (but not Facebook, because as one eighth grader scolds their mom, “no one really uses Facebook anymore”). From my own work as a youth pastor, I can attest that these parts of the film come incredibly close to reality for middle schoolers in 2018. The ways in which Burnham’s characters interact on social media serve as essential backdrop to understanding the motivations of these characters as well, especially in Kayla’s case.
Our first introduction to Kayla is via her YouTube channel, as we watch her making one of the many videos we see throughout the film. As is often the case with social media, Kayla uses it to paint a picture of herself that equal parts aspirational and exaggerated. As Kayla records more of these YouTube videos, I found myself pondering whether or not our online presence is a reflection of our true persona. Is it possible for a teenage girl to give advice on confidence even if she doesn’t typically feel confident herself? Or could this creative outlet be a way for Kayla to encourage and coach herself through this stage of adolescence? For Kayla, the answer seems to be yes to both.
As someone on the margins of her own middle school society, Kayla possesses a keen awareness of who around her is being fake and who is being genuine. Even so, she herself is not immune to the desire for acceptance and struggles through several instances of identity crisis, losing her true self in the process of trying to find it. In other words… #adolescence.
One thing that adolescents need more than almost anything else is someone to love them and to genuinely care about them. Not every adolescent has people around them to do that. Even though she acts annoyed by him, Kayla is fortunate to have a dad who simply loves her. Their interactions throughout the film are humorous, cringeworthy, and heartwarming — sometimes all at once. But the final scene between Kayla and her father by a campfire is one of the most powerful portrayals of godly, fatherly love I have ever witnessed on film.
I hope I can model for my own children this kind of love that God has for us. A love that sees past our faults down to our true self. A love that helps us to realize who we really are and enables us to love ourselves for it. A love for which the only response is to curl up and be embraced by a big, warm hug.