Pop Culture Advent Calendar, Day 5: Eighth Grade
Inspired by NPR, every day (gulp) from December 1st to 24th, I will be highlighting
a pop culture moment from this year that I loved. Today I talk about Eighth Grade.
Eighth Grade is Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, and it follows Kayla Day (played by actual eighth grader at the time Elsie Fisher), as she navigates the last few weeks of eighth grade. I loved it. There’s well over a decade between myself and the main character Kayla, but I found it intensely relatable.
Eighth Grade is like a film version of a take what you need jar. Everyone gleans something different from it – it’s portrayal of anxiety, social awkwardness, the depiction of teens’ reliance on social media, the almost textbook reality of what it is like to be a fourteen-year-old American teenager. Bo Burnham, like other creators I love – Winnie Holzman of My So Called Life, Julie Andem of Skam, talked to a lot of teens as part of the creation process. They clearly have a reverence and a respect for their subjects’ voices, and it shows in every scene.
For me, the film’s portrayal of anxiety and loneliness was its triumph, particularly because empathy for characters who strive for self-actualisation is written into my DNA thanks to Mia Thermopolis. Kayla makes advice videos on YouTube addressing things like how to make friends and how to be confident. Not only is that it a good tool for showing how teens use social media (also the over saturation of YouTube because nobody is watching our girl’s videos), but it also shows a distance between who she is at school and who she wants to be, who she is trying to be, not just for her videos but for herself; at school she is voted ‘Most Quiet.’ In her video about how to make friends, she says ‘people thought I was quiet, but if they just talk to me – I mean when they just talk to me they see that I’m not.’
There are three scenes that are still in high focus for me, even though I watched the movie a while ago. The first is when Kayla approaches popular girl Kennedy to give her a thank you letter for inviting her to her party. Then she says hi to Kennedy’s friend. They act somewhere between indifferent and bewildered, and when they walk away, Kayla’s face, always set to friendly in front of her peers, wobbles and she almost breaks down. It’s such an emotional moment because Kayla has no close friends, and she makes a big effort to do so. Characters like her are an open beating heart, and by laying out her interior life, the viewer (and I) care deeply about her happiness. So when it doesn’t work out, and she is hurt, it is heart-breaking.
The next scene is, at the emotional low of the film, she apologises to her dad for being a disappointment, and he goes on a beautiful spiel about how cool he thinks she is, and how kind. It sticks out to me because it is just what Elsie needed to hear, perhaps from the person she thought she needed the least. It’s wonderful and gives Elsie a little bit of self-esteem gas to get to confront Kennedy for being mean and make friends with someone who actually wants to be friends with her. It also shows how important validation from our parents really is, even when we go through periods of struggling to connect with them.
Which brings me to the third scene, right at the end of the movie, where she has dinner with potential new friend Gabe, who sets out several different sauces for her to eat her chips. It’s a very sweet, wonderfully awkward scene, but it’s hopeful and such a catharsis to Kayla’s loneliness. Gabe and Kayla originally talk through Instagram, showing that for all we talk about social media’s ills, and what it does to teens, there are many ways that teens use it to connect with each other.
This type of storytelling is my favourite type. Where the triumph at the main character making a friend matches triumph at a main character of a fantasy story for defeating the big bad. I really loved it and I can’t wait to see what the cast and director does next.