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Social media magnifies adolescent angst in ‘Eighth Grade’

Elsie Fisher in “Eighth Grade”


Well, that was awkward.

With piercing, at times overwhelming, accuracy, “Eighth Grade” captures the trauma of adolescence like few films have. The experience is akin to watching a horror movie, gasping and wincing as you avert your eyes from cringe-worthy embarrassment that’s just too painful to watch.

This story of a 13-year-old girl during her last week of middle school is often funny, too, but it all adds up to an unflinching look at one of life’s most difficult seasons.

The Sundance Film Festival hit isn’t so much a coming-of-age story as it is a feature-length trigger for a teenager’s worst fears, sure to resonate with those currently navigating these anxieties while resurrecting them for those who once did.

This is made even more difficult by social media. Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and the like are tools meant to help us connect with others and express who we are—but young teenagers often struggle with the former, because they’re still unsure about the latter. Social media compounds these challenges while also serving as a mask for them, an irony explored to great effect in “Eighth Grade.”

First-time writer/director Bo Burnham is a bit of a sage on the subject. He’s a 27-year-old comedian who got his start posting YouTube videos from his bedroom. He found success as an early adopter of a platform that has become, in the decade since, obnoxiously ubiquitous.

“Eighth Grade” may be about a young girl, but Burnham has undoubtedly mined his own personal biography. Now outspoken about his own concerns with social media, this cautionary indictment comes off as a humbled mea culpa.

Newcomer Elsie Fisher plays Kayla Day, a quiet girl whose shyness belies her inner extrovert. She’s bursting with emotions and thoughts and feelings, but she’s too insecure to express them. In her first effort to put herself out there, she creates a YouTube channel for self-help videos, offering the kind of social advice she might benefit from applying to her own life. The authority she exudes online, however, completely crumbles in the real world.

That starts to change as Kayla begins making attempts to follow the counsel of her own videos. The results are often agonizing to watch. Each moment festers in awkward silence, but the humiliation is deafening. Worse yet, Kayla’s desperation to fit in also opens her up to new risks.

Her single dad is sincere and engaged, even sensitive, but he’s ill-equipped to help Kayla navigate this transition. Kayla uses her cell phone as a wall between them, which doesn’t help, but Burnham sympathizes with both parent and child. We don’t take sides in their conflict. Burnham has us rooting for both.

Along with this empathetic insight, Burnham displays a confidence in filmmaking that exceeds his home video origins. He utilizes a vérité style but with intention, painting a skillful cinematic portrait of his subject. The budget may be low, but the quality isn’t.

Even when things appear they may go right for Kayla, we’re waiting for another shoe to drop. Sometimes it does—but not always—and by the end of this pubescent gauntlet, there’s comfort in a simple ideal: The coolest person in the room is the one who’s the most generous.

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