“Eighth Grade,” directed by Bo Burnham, is a startlingly accurate portrayal of today’s youth growing up in the digital age. Arguably the first film of its kind, “Eighth Grade” captures what it is like to be a middle-schooler in the world of Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. While the award-winning film is called “Eighth Grade,” its “R” rating is intended for a different audience than the name implies.
Elsie Fisher plays 13-year-old Kayla Day, who is, in the simplest terms, trying to get through eighth grade. Voted “most quiet” by her classmates, Day struggles to socialize with her peers, despite her best efforts at putting herself “out there.” She is ignored by most of her classmates, and in the scenes where she does try to speak to them, there is a stark contrast between her appearance and the way that the popular girls in her class dress, such as by their varying confidence levels.
The surprising twist, however, is that Day has her own YouTube Channel where she gives advice to others through videos with titles such as “How to Be Confident.” Burnham uses these videos, filmed in Photo Booth, to aptly address the different appearances people curate on social media versus those they hold in reality. Under the fortress of these YouTube videos, Day’s personality shines through in a way that it can’t at her school. Day explains to her YouTube viewers that although she was voted “most quiet,” she actually is really outgoing. These comments explore the limitations that arise from Day’s anxiety in social situations.
Burnham invites viewers in for a close look at Day’s relationship with her single father, her crush at school, and the popular kids. The cinematic techniques incite a biographical, documentary style film, allowing Day to share her story with the audience. Day breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at the audience during her YouTube videos, which is when she feels most like herself. Additionally, the extreme close-ups of Day’s face—highlighting her puberty-fueled acne—force the audience to get to know her on a personal level. Finally, the soundtrack of the film does not include any recognizable songs, which intensifies the reality of Day’s experience in today’s society.
While Day’s desire to survive middle school and make it out of her awkward phase is aptly depicted by Burnham, it still begs the question: why is a film about eighth grade not acceptable for eighth graders to watch? The “R” rating lets a limited audience, one that doesn’t fit the title, to peer into Day’s life. However, the rating also allows Burnham to achieve a level of reality that perhaps a “PG-13” film could not. The dialogue includes multiple curse words from Day, as well as Googling how to perform sexual acts. Is Burnham simply allowing the audience to reminisce about their time as middle school students? Or is he perhaps asking us to consider how an overemphasis on social media defines the architecture of our social structures, as well as our own self-perception?