Oh Bo, Part Five: Eighth Grade
Burnham Moves to Film to Pass His Ideals to a Wider Audience with Eighth Grade
“I’m looking at this girl and thinking ‘There’s a scared little girl who is self conscious and worried.’” — Bo Burnham on the origins of Eighth Grade
It begins, as it always has, in another suburban bedroom. But something’s different. It’s darker except for two lights: one from the desk and the other from a laptop screen. The red record light stares out, waiting to be pushed, but it’s not that young boy, it’s a young girl. She’s set up a background and a camera. She looks at the wall, worried she might fade into the background with it. She doesn’t care. She presses the record button and waits for the video to start. No one will watch these videos, but the girl pays it no mind. They’re more for her, even if she doesn’t realize it yet.
Bo Burnham had dominated the stand-up scene, creating three of the most daring and unique specials anyone had ever seen. He had just completed his latest stand-up special Make Happy and was ready to step away from performing. Burnham had been working for years on making his first foray into film. He was brimming with ideas, the question was what to start with. After looking back at his career and fanbase, it turned out that demographic that he connected to most to was 13-year-old girls. So that’s who Burnham made his directorial debut on.
Eighth Grade centers on 13-year-old Kayla Day, played by the remarkable Elsie Fisher. She runs her own YouTube channel filled with motivational videos that no one watches. She purports herself to be this confident, put together person, but in reality, she is anxious and terrified. Over the course of her last five days in eighth grade, we witness Kayla trying to make a change. Whether it’s going to a popular girl’s pool party, hanging out with high school kids, or eating chicken nuggets with a new friend, Kayla tries to overcome her own fears to become the confident, capable person she’s presented herself to be.
Eighth Grade is an uncomfortable, yet honest look at what it means to grow up in today’s digital society. The anxieties Kayla grapples with throughout the film mirror Burnham’s own. Burnham saw the troubles plaguing his own generation thanks to social media and technology and saw how they were affecting the next Generation, newly dubbed “Generation Z.” Here, Burnham makes the focus of his directorial debut not a young boy, but a young girl. In effect Burnham is passing the torch onto the next generation of young kids hoping they make a change.
The hallmarks of Generation Z are still being studied and explored, but they are very similar to the generation that preceded them. However, instead of assimilating to technology as the Millennials did, Generation Z was introduced to it at an early age and as such were well versed in social media apps such as Snapchat and Instagram. Though it helped raise a more tolerant and diverse generation thanks to global connectivity, it also has created an impatient and isolated one. Their world is much more singular, often glued to their phones instead of engaging with the people around them.
Burnham emphasizes this isolation in how he frames Eighth Grade. Burnham uses a lot of single close-ups to keep the focus squarely in Kayla’s perspective. She is always the focus of the scene, even if she is not the one speaking. Even though she is surrounded by people at times, she is still separated from everyone else, usually keeping her eyes down. When other characters talk to her, like a teacher, another parent, or her own father (Josh Hamilton), Burnham shows us the world through Kayla’s eyes. The result is usually a view that blurs out or cuts off those around her apart from herself and her phone. It’s a disconnected view of the world and it’s here that Burnham displays Kayla’s isolation from the world around her.
Kayla’s disconnect from her surroundings is mostly due to often feeling overwhelmed by them. It’s apparent to the audience within the first ten minutes of the movie as we see Kayla prepare for school in the darkness of her room and immediately cut to her walking to school in daylight. The jump from darkness to light is jarring and puts the audience instantly in Kayla’s state of mind. For Kayla, light is intrusive, particularly if it’s from the outdoors (Burnham notes how pale she is due to a lack of sunlight) or from her own Dad saying goodnight. The only light that Kayla cares about is the one coming from her phone.
Burnham plays with darkness and shadows to create an environment of isolation that is contrasted by the blaring lights of the outside world or a computer screen. Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock states that digital technology “creates an environment, regardless of the content they are expressing,” specifically “an environment of choice.” Burnham states in the script that Kayla has “every piece of culture right in front of her,” but she instead prefers to stay on Instagram and pine for a life that she seems incapable of having. The world of the internet is hypnotizing to Kayla and she will forgo eating or sleep to stay in it.
Kayla is addicted to her phone, like many of her generation and the generation before it. She has it with her at all times and when she’s away from it, she’s pulled towards it like a safety blanket. When she breaks it early in the film, she is devastated, but continues using it. She cuts herself on her cracked screen at one point, but continues to scroll anyway, showcasing how tethered she is to it. In Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle warns that society’s addiction to phones is similar to drugs. However, the solution is not as simple as “There’s only one thing you should do if you’re addicted to heroin: get off heroin. But laptops and smartphones are not things to remove. They are facts of life and part of our creative lives.” Kayla shows how her addiction to her own phone is causing her physical harm, but she is so connected to it she cannot help herself.
Kayla tends to try and compartmentalize her own social and emotional development. She has sticky notes written with various platitudes all over her mirror so she can see them at any given time. At school, she decides to be proactive by writing a list of things she wants and how she plans to get them. It’s easy for her to write these ideas and actions down, but to actually do them is nerve-wracking to her. No matter how many times she practices, she never quite seems to get it right. It’s most clear in how Burnham often juxtaposes what Kayla states in her videos with the often awkward reality of her attempts to connect with the world around her.
Kayla’s videos are reminiscent of Burnham’s early beginnings, but also showcase how times have changed. Kayla’s videos get little to no views, she’s completely buried by the amount of content on the site. She’s talking out there in the void, but no one’s listening. Here Kayla is trying to formulate her own opinions and views, even if she doesn’t completely follow them. She tries to rewrite her own narrative, talking about “this weird girl I had to invite to my pool party” as if that person is not her. They serve as highway markers on the road of Kayla’s social and emotional development.
Kayla’s journey towards self-acceptance and confidence is kickstarted by deciding to go to a popular girl’s pool party. Kayla is reluctant to go, knowing that Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) doesn’t want her to be there. However, Kayla ends up going anyway after making a video about “putting yourself out there.” Kayla is so terrified to walk out into the pool in a simple green one-piece bathing suit that she has a panic attack in the bathroom. Eventually she overcomes her fear and heads to the door and looks at the chaos outside.
Here, Burnham amps the chaos of the party as he pans down to the pool. It’s complete anarchy. A “grape soda bacchanalia,” as Burnham describes it in the script and it’s frightening. Kayla looks out at the real world in front of her, through another screen no less, and looks terrified at what it has to offer. It’s overwhelming and the audience is placed squarely in Kayla’s shoes. Here Burnham shows how even the littlest things can seem like these Herculean tasks to overcome. Kayla manages to conquer her fears and steps outside to the pool with the other kids. She feels all eyes on her, even though no one’s looking. The moment she steps in the pool, she dips her head underwater to cut out all the noise. She is able to reset and stay outside, even if she does hug the side of the pool.
Following the pool party, Kayla begins to earn the confidence she has claimed she has in her videos. It gives her the vigor to make friends with Olivia (Emily Robinson), the high schooler Kayla shadows. Olivia is a perfect foil for Kayla because she is everything Kayla could be. Burnham even has them dress in a similar manner to show that they are “cut from the same cloth.” She matches Kayla’s awkward energy perfectly and instantly relaxes her. Though Olivia is four years older than Kayla, she understands where Kayla’s at in her life and wants her to know that she’s not alone. It’s very much like Burnham himself making this film in order to put this new generation of kids at ease.
The differences from Generation Z and the Millennials are currently being studied and debated as we speak. Burnham recognizes how much more difficult it is to notice these changes saying “generation gaps are shrinking… I do feel as close to someone 20 years older as I do someone 6 years younger.” The traits that define one generation over another are becoming murkier to the point that even sociologists haven’t agreed on where Millennials end and Gen Z begins. Both generations are referred to as digital natives and there are differences between the two, despite many older generations lumping them into the same group.
One of the major things that drives Burnham is his fear of what this culture is doing to young children. In an interview he notes how Snapchat beauty filters and newer iPhone cameras “are gonna fuck up kids.” Our new digital society has presented a warped perception of beauty, with perfect, thin Instagram models looking hot even when they post pictures that suggest otherwise like “Ugh, just woke up like this. LOL.” The result is a generation of young people at unease with their own bodies and try to overcompensate by acting more overtly sexual than they really are which results in a whole lot of trouble.
Kayla faces this head on as she struggles to explore sexuality and relationships. She lies about having nude pictures and giving blowjobs in order to impress her crush as it is the only way to get his attention. Kayla is so ready to be someone she’s not in order to impress her crush and it makes her look ridiculous to the audience. Kayla is willing to practice on a banana, a fruit we learn she hates, to see if she can. It’s a moment that showcases Kayla’s fear of being a loser usurps doing things she clearly doesn’t like. It’s puberty from 0–60 and Kayla hasn’t even learned how to drive.
Thankfully Kayla is not so anxiety prone to have a sexual experience later in the movie. After hanging out with Olivia and her friends, Kayla is being driven home by one of Olivia’s friends Riley (Daniel Zolghadri). What follows is the most uncomfortable scene in a film full of them as Riley engages Kayla in a game of “Truth or Dare” in which he tries to coerce Kayla into sex. Kayla keeps her eyes to the ground and tries to deflect, but ultimately shouts “NO,” and nothing happens. Thankfully Kayla and the audience are spared from a sexual assault, but it is nonetheless harmful to Kayla’s perception of herself and the world.
Despite standing up for herself, Kayla is still made to feel bad for rejecting Riley’s advances. She says she’s sorry and feels bad because she isn’t fulfilling the needs placed on her by society. It’s a moment that breaks her as she sees the world for how it truly is and it makes her feel terrible. It’s Kayla at her absolute lowest and she does the only thing she can do: make a video.
I started making videos, um, I started making videos so I could give, like, advice and stuff and give you guys tips on what to do to make your lives better or whatever but, um… I don’t know, it’s -- If I’m really being really, totally honest, I’m probably not the best person to give advice cause, I don’t know, I mean I like giving advice and it’s fun to give advice but… I don’t know… I guess I don’t really know how to do a lot of stuff. I know how to talk about stuff, but I’m really not good at doing stuff. And I’m… I’m really nervous… like, all the time… like… for no reason. Like I’ll be nervous even when there’s nothing to be nervous about really. Like… it’s sort of like when you wait in line for a roller coaster and you have that nervous stomach, like I feel like that all the time, like every day, and I don’t ever get that feeling you get after you ride the roller coaster when you feel better. It’s just like I’m waiting in line all the time. And I try really hard not to feel like that, but, I don’t know, I just can’t. And so like if you guys are going through tough times, or whatever, you deserve somebody who knows how to get through tough times, y’know? Like you deserve someone who’s good at making themselves feel better cause then maybe they can help you feel better. — Kayla, Eighth Grade
Here, Kayla is truly honest with her “audience” and with herself. Burnham helps exemplify this by having this video be the only one in which Kayla is not obscured or presented through a camera. It’s a tight close up of Kayla’s face slightly over the computer screen. Here we see Kayla at her most raw, zits and all. She is able to admit that the life she’s presented is a lie and that she’s an anxiety ridden mess. Her decision to step away from presenting something otherwise is crucial because it shows how she recognizes something as unhealthy and cuts it out of her life. As a result she is able to be more open with the people around her.
Kayla’s time capsule is emblazoned with the words “To the coolest girl in the world.” It’s an affirming moniker, but it comes with a heavy sense of expectation. Kayla puts lofty goals on her shoulders and when she faces resistance, she crumbles. It’s embarrassing for her to see those words staring back at her, knowing full well she hasn’t met them. It’s what makes her so averse to watching the video her younger self made. She is terrified at the concept of facing her own past, to come face to face to a version of herself that she would rather forget. It’s only when she is at her lowest following her fateful game of truth or dare that she dares to confront her sixth-grade self.
The final video in Eighth Grade is another time capsule that Kayla makes for her high school self. Instead of putting this weight of expectations on herself, she supports herself. She asks “Do you have a boyfriend?” but instead of just leaving it at that, she says “It’s alright if you don’t.” She tells herself that even though she may not hit all of her goals or if high school sucks, there’s nothing wrong with that. She’s proud of herself for making it through and regardless of what happens “I can’t wait to be you.” Kayla still has a lot to learn, but she is finally more willing to accept that failure is a possibility, but that’s the nature of being a kid.
Burnham created Eighth Grade to show many other young kids struggling that they are not alone. Stories, as Rushkoff defines them, “are less about predicting the future than influencing it.” Burnham seeks to remind us that we were all children once, treating pool parties and friendships with the same intensity then as we do of paying off student loans or looking for the right career now. Stories too “have proven themselves great as a way of storing information and values and passing them on to the next generation.” Here Burnham creates, much like Kayla, a time capsule to remind us where we came from but also to remind the ones who follow us that it’s all perfectly normal.
Bo Burnham went from an internet sensation to television star to revolutionary comedian to lauded filmmaker in the time it would take most people to master one of those things. He is an artist that constantly evolved in reaction to the society that he rose to fame during. He did so in order to show the people in his generation to think for themselves and not give in to the seductive pull of technology. He saw a society that was becoming more vapid and narcissistic with businesses fueling the most negative impulses. Burnham became the preeminent artist for the Millennials because he sought to change the unhealthy traits of his generation and emphasize the good from within.
Words, Words, Words is Burnham seeking to define the purpose of art. He started to explore what fame does to people in Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous by airing it on the network that was perpetuating the very ideas he was fighting against. In what. Burnham seeks to define the purpose of comedy and its role in his (and our) emotional wellbeing. Make Happy explores the purpose of performance and how our society has shaped our need to perform all the time. He took those lessons and put them into Eighth Grade to show what those expectations are doing to the next generation.
The internet, smart phones, and social media changed the very fabric of society. Suddenly the world became one of instant gratification, where all the world’s information, products, and services were available with the press of a digital button. With social media we suddenly were more connected in ways we couldn’t imagine. The result was a generation of young people growing up feeling the need to present the best versions of themselves at all times with no chances to make mistakes.
Burnham recognized the state of society and his generation’s complacency with this troubling new normal. He sought to dismantle the toxic relationship between people and performance and to seek self-acceptance. He saw our concept of identity was being commodified and spoke out against it, not only being “a comic emissary from planet Millennial,” but an advocate across all art forms for his generation and the generation after. Instead of feeding into a culture that fed off of parasocial relationships between artist and performer, Burnham satirized the worst qualities in himself and his peers in order to correct them.
In a New Yorker profile promoting Eighth Grade, Burnham reads a letter his younger self from 2001 wrote to the Bo of 2008, right as he was rocketing to fame. 2001 Bo asks 2008 Bo if he’s been in any commercials or films, unaware just how famous his future self would become. It is brimming with adolescent hope, not quite what 2018 Burnham explores. Burnham’s mother Pattie reacts with fondness, stating “He just was a good kid.” Burnham replies back with seven simple words:
“I was terrified of not being good.”
Burnham encompasses his entire generation and career in one short, yet powerful sentence. He speaks for all of us. We are all scared children trying to meet the expectations that society has placed on us. To be the best that we were told we could be. Trying, desperately, to be good.