Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade opens with a scene in which a group of eighth graders are presented with gift-like boxes they’d constructed and sealed up years ago, addressed to their “future selves” and to be opened upon graduation. One of these students, Kayla (Elsie Fisher), was apparently a much more confident person at the dawn of sixth grade, certain that she would be, as the words on her self-addressed box state, “the coolest girl in the world.” But in the intervening years, Kayla became awkward and excluded, and now she spends her spare time making YouTube videos encouraging viewers to “be yourself,” which is ironic considering how uneasy she is in her own skin.
Eighth Grade doesn’t simply follow Kayla, but immerses us in the dynamics of the technologically accelerating world that influences who she is and who she wants to be. Self-presentation is ritualized throughout: Kayla wakes up, applies her makeup, and gets back into bed, modifying a selfie with an app while noting, “Woke up like this!” And we’re invited to chuckle at the ironies of Kayla’s hobbies and activities, but underlying such scenes is a strain of eeriness, as if the film were offering up a post-human spin on Pretty in Pink.
Kayla hungers for friends among her peers, and more than that, the attention of a wiry but fetching classmate, Aidan (Luke Prael). Whether online or in the real world, she fumbles to find someone to whom she can comfortably relate: Kayla struggles to text and emoji her way through social media exchanges, and when walking through a pool party amid fitter and more socially keen kids, she exudes tremulous longing, becoming a wallflower on the far end of the pool. As Kayla says at one point, “My life is like constantly being in line for a roller coaster but never having that feeling you have after the ride’s done.”
Kayla’s alienation is most memorably framed in a sequence, set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” that superimposes her smartphone activity over her face. This is an apt, if amusingly anachronistic, needle drop in that the girl is awash in some kind of mass-media ocean that rewires us year by year to adapt to a “new normal.” Adolescence has always been weird, markedly different generations having the same essential social anxieties. Hierarchies continue to be reinforced, only now it’s by who has the most “likes” on social media. Pervy dudes are everywhere, but the peeping toms with binoculars are now Snapchat trolls. And school drills are still arranged, though not in preparation for nuclear eradication, but for a random school shooting.
During one such drill, Kayla tries her hand at flirting with a glued-to-his-phone Aidan, who notes that he wishes this wasn’t pretend and there was a real shooter at their middle school. “Why?” she asks. To which Aidan responds: “Cuz then I’d fuck him up.” The exchange is as funny as it is disquieting, exemplifying the discomforting shift into the new normal.
This sense of world-on-a-wire modernity is reinforced by a glossily plastic synth score, itself complementing the preponderance of facial modifications on characters’ smartphones. Everyone is self-augmenting to keep up, but no matter how hard Kayla works at it, she remains behind the pack. While social media feels like a burrow where her peers stock up on status, for Kayla it serves a quixotic purpose. Her videos are like rituals, as if she’ll become, in real life, the person she’s projecting onto screens. Even when she’s ostensibly untruthful—which is often—she curiously doesn’t exhibit guile.
Coming-of-age films typically mandate that its heroes charge confidently into the future. While Kayla finds that confidence here, Burnham’s screenplay is thankfully not so sentimental that it guarantees that life will get any easier for her. The sole child of an adoring, single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), whose wife left long ago, Kayla was born into dysfunctional circumstances that naturally dispose her to waft further from any kind of coveted in-crowd. But in Kayla’s relationship with her father, Burnham illumines a ray of unequivocal authenticity. Crestfallen by her lack of social success, Kayla confides to Mark that she would regret it if she had a daughter who turned out like her. Baffled, he can only answer her with gushing pride and adoration.
This intimate scene, where Eighth Grade’s laptop and phone lights are eschewed in favor of a backyard bonfire, is extraordinary in how it dramatizes the unconditional love parents so often have for their children. Burnham’s film has laid out a perverse dog-eat-dog landscape of teen monsters and addictive machines where such an affirmation struggles to ring true, and yet it’s a suspended, poignant picture of rare honesty.