Films are made for a myriad of reasons, but most fall into one of two categories: 1) those that encourage escape, and 2) those which connect us to a significant truth about the human experience. No film has exemplified the latter quite like comedian Bo Burnham’s major directorial debut, Eighth Grade.
Middle school is a resonant time period. I teach art to middle schoolers and have the pleasure of seeing my students define themselves and experience tender (and occasionally embarrassing) moments. Most filmmakers won’t go near middle school in their work, and when they do, representation is murky at best. We are used to seeing teen films that oversexualize their subjects and project unrealistic expectations onto the very people being documented, while other middle grade movies rely too heavily on the stereotypical “awkwardness” of these years for humor, feeling forced and not funny. It takes a special writer and director to say anything poignant about young adolescence without appearing perverted or exploitative, and Bo Burnham proves himself to be one of these select individuals.
Eighth Grade is carried with grace and a lot of heart by Elsie Fisher, in what will undoubtedly become an iconic role for the young actor. Fisher plays Kayla, an eighth grader raised by a single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who spends her free time creating a more confident online persona of herself on social media. Technology becomes a leading character in the film, which often employs Kayla’s inspirational YouTube commentary to provide contrast between her online performativity and in-person anxiety. Burnham utilizes technology that pervades the lives of Gen. Z without shaming or praising it, a stance I appreciate and wish more filmmakers would take. The physicality of Kayla and her peers was another highlight. Eighth Grade casts actors who display telltale signs of puberty–acne, braces, bodies in flux–and does nothing to politicize them but rather normalizes the act of showing these bodies. Hollywood has projected the experiences of teens onto adult actors for several decades, so it was strangely satisfying to see verifiable teenagers existing on screen.
The climax of the film centers around Kayla visiting the high school she will attend the following year and meeting Olivia (Emily Robinson), whom she instantly befriends. Later that night, excited by the prospect of high school and more mature relationships, Kayla goes to the mall with Olivia and her crew. On the ride home with Olivia’s pal, Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), Kayla endures trauma that forces her to assert herself. This moment is tense and uncomfortable, because many people watching will likely recall a similar moment from their own past–a moment which pushes the viewer’s boundaries and leaves a feeling of guilt. I haven’t seen such a guttural and important scene in quite some time.
In fact, over the past year, many men of power have had to publicly reckon with their past mistakes. Often when someone’s problematic past comes out of the woodwork, our first instinct is to “cancel” that person, deeming their work unworthy of support and deciding that there is no room for change or growth. I too, have “cancelled” celebrities when I hear that they have performed sexist acts or made bigoted remarks, especially white men. One such man I would have previously “cancelled” is shock jockey Bo Burnham, but Eighth Grade forced me to reckon with and reconsider my position on Burnham and ultimately “cancelling” as a concept.
Prior to this film, my knowledge of Bo Burnham was born of my own middle school years. In his early videos, Burnham would joke about topics like Helen Keller, the Holocaust, and race relations with the lack of awareness one expects from a 17-year-old straight white boy. His humor was not particularly unique but provided exceptional shock value. Based on my experience with Burnham’s work, I was initially skeptical about Eighth Grade. I thought the movie would be offensive at worst, humorous at best, and wholly inaccurate.
Still, I went into the film with an open mind, and I was pleasantly surprised. I’m not sure what feminist literature Burnham has read or what he’s experienced in the last 10 years, but he appears to have changed. Although nothing can minimize the repugnancy of some of Burnham’s previous jokes, his ability to craft a scene in which a young woman is nearly assaulted–in such a way that felt honest, empathetic, and not at all degrading–serves as a testament to his shift in values.
While I wholeheartedly believe it’s more important to celebrate new, marginalized voices than question the forgiveness of white men who write horrible jokes, Eighth Grade proved that in some cases, given a second chance, people can atone for their sins and create art that speaks to the heart of the human experience.