CinemaTech is Eric Emin Wood’s periodic look at how pop culture depicts the world of tech.
SPOILER WARNING: An informal poll of the ITWC editorial team tells me there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Eighth Grade, let alone possess any interest in seeing it. If so, this column is a shameless attempt to change that.
When I was in middle and high school, I thought that all of my classmates had figured everything out, and that I had it worse than everyone else.
One of the most important lessons I learned in university was that everyone felt that way, at least some of the time, even the students I considered popular – and Eighth Grade, YouTuber-turned-first-time-writer-director Bo Burnham’s depiction of the worst period of adolescence, understands that.
The movie feels like a time capsule of our youngest mobile-addicted, social media-obsessed, video-worshipping generation, yes, but its not-so-secret weapon is that the bones of the story would have been the same whether it was set in 2018 or 1978.
Eighth Grade begins, like so many of its ilk do, with protagonist Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) speaking to the audience.
But because we’re in the age of influencers – some of them among the richest people on the planet – her words are addressed not to her diary, or the audience-as-confidante, but to the millions of potential viewers on YouTube she hopes to reach with her vlogs.
I personally think the trailer gives too much away. But kudos to its architects for using Orinoco Flow, which is actually in the movie.
“Hey guys. It’s, uh, Kayla back with another video,” she says in the first video we see. “So, the topic of this video is being yourself. Being yourself can be hard. And it’s like, ‘aren’t I always being myself?’ And yeah, for sure, but ‘being yourself’ is, like, not changing yourself for someone else.”
“As always, make sure to share and subscribe to the channel,” she says at the end of every video, making the “OK” symbol with her left hand. “Gucci!”
Of course, since like most 13-year-olds (and grown-ups) Kayla is much better at giving advice than following it, her message to “be yourself” is followed by a pair of memorable sequences in which our heroine does her level best to reshape herself to the liking of vapid crush (and male winner of her cohort’s coveted “best eyes” award) Aiden (Luke Prael) by first alluding to a habit of taking X-rated pictures and accidentally emailing them to ex-boyfriends, then by researching blowjobs on the internet when he asks if she gives them.
In the next scene she tries practicing oral sex on a banana, is caught by her dad (Josh Hamilton), and throws up because, as dad helpfully notes, she hates bananas.
Both scenes are cringe-inducingly funny – not, I would argue, because of their frank acknowledgment of the sexts and video tutorials now available to kids that few of us grew up with (in the U.S. the film was, unfortunately, rated R by parents apparently horrified that a 13-year-old would be looking up blowjobs – never mind that none occur on- or offscreen), but because in illustrating the current platform that provides the type of information I and my predecessors would have looked up in Cosmopolitan, perhaps after hearing rumours of at least one student getting to third base, they conjure up the embarrassing memories associated with that research too.
And you know what? It’s nice to finally see that in a movie.
Another thread, following Kayla’s worry over her lack of popularity, underlines the roles social media and smartphones now play in her age-old struggle, with Kayla aggressively scrolling through Snapchat (not Facebook – because, she told Burnham and says to her dad in the film, “no one uses Facebook”) in an apparent quest to deliver as many “Likes” as possible, and trying to compliment popular girls Steph (Nora Mullins) and female “best eyes” winner Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) while they type away on their iPhones.
Yet while the platforms on which it’s delivered might be new, Kayla’s sense of isolation isn’t. This is hammered home during one of the film’s setpieces, in which Kennedy is forced to invite Kayla to her birthday party and proceeds to ignore the less popular girl at every opportunity.
And while Kennedy’s hardly drawn with sympathy, she’s not the only one isolating Kayla – Kayla does that herself as well, both during the party by feeling (but not looking) more awkward than the other guests in her lime-green swimsuit…
And with others who actually want to connect with her, like Kennedy’s cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan)…
Or even her own father:
Portable computers might be involved to an extent they weren’t when I was 13 (the best we had access to was a Casio electronic organizer), but that sense of (often self-inflicted) loneliness that so many teens feel trapped in? That’s timeless.
The film’s most controversial thread barely involves technology at all: after a day of school-mandated “shadowing,” Kayla befriends Olivia, a high school senior who takes a genuine liking to her, chatting with her on the phone and even inviting her to meet her friends at the mall.
“I was a complete mess when I was your age!” Olivia enthusiastically tells Kayla. “Eighth grade was. The worst!”
Kayla connects with Olivia thanks to the phone. But it’s her father that drives her to the mall, and Olivia’s friend Riley (Daniel Zolghadri) who drives her home… after dropping off and assuring Olivia that he’ll bring Kayla home safely, and after pulling his car over and joining Kayla in the back seat for a very uncomfortable game of Truth or Dare.
That scene, presented more as a teachable moment than a parent’s worst nightmare (Riley’s a creep who gaslights Kayla for standing her ground, but when she says he’s making her uncomfortable, he backs off) could have existed in just about any film in the last 50 years brave enough to include it, though perhaps it includes more relevance in the #MeToo era.
Eighth Grade is not a typical coming-of-age movie. Kayla has a list of goals she’d like to accomplish, but she doesn’t miraculously complete it before the film ends, and there’s no guarantee she’ll enjoy high school more than its predecessor. It’s more than likely her neuroses – technology-related and not – will follow her, though perhaps she’ll be better prepared to face some of them, and smart enough to ignore others.
Kayla’s vlogs prove to be an effective framing device, continuously teaching lessons that are the polar opposite of her actions, until the last one – powered by her realization that she hasn’t figured everything out, and that’s okay – suddenly isn’t, giving her final signoff a powerful new impact it would have had whether it was broadcast on YouTube or not.