Every so often a film comes around that captures reality in such a way that it reveals the very soul of a cultural moment. Bo Burnham’s debut film, Eighth Grade, penetrates the social imagination in exactly that way. The film stars Elsie Fisher in a breakout performance as the “most shy” eighth grade superlative winner Kayla Day. Kayla is an endearingly awkward wannabe YouTube sensation (her videos only get one or two views per post) who spends her days in relative silence at school. Her nights are spent creating videos for her channel, scrolling Instagram, and sometimes interacting, begrudgingly, with her father. By all accounts, Kayla is a normal eighth grader with an uneventful life—she goes to school, comes home, and tries to make friends somewhere in between. Kayla, unsurprisingly, finds herself in situations becoming of the average American middle schooler: the mall, school, a summer pool party. However, the focus of the film is not so much on where Kayla goes or even on what she does. The focus remains on her internal life—her fears, her anxieties, her perpetually active self-consciousness. In the external expression of the internal life of Kayla Day lies the genius of Burnham’s film.
Amidst the banality of the modern-day eighth grade experience the viewer is able to catch a glimpse of herself or himself in Kayla Day. Take, for example, Kayla’s evening spent in bed scrolling through Instagram, Buzzfeed, and Harry Potter fan pages. To the track of “Orinoco Flow” by Enya—in which the haunting and dreamy chorus repeats, “sail away, sail away, sail away”—Kayla finds herself moving between Instagram, watching homemade Silly Putty videos, and commenting on classmates’ “cat claw” Snapchats. During this sequence, despite all of its youthfulness, the viewer is forced to look in the proverbial mirror as she must watch what is all too familiar to modern life: the mind-numbing hours spent on Instagram scrolling without a purpose to a destination of nowhere. The anesthetizing cadence of “sail away” brilliantly depicts the mindlessness the activity embodies, not to mention the medicating that the activity is often used for.For all of the striving, pain, and difficulty Kayla goes through to obtain love it turns out that a father’s love is what it takes to set her free.
Certainly, for Kayla, as for us, social media doesn’t come without its social anxieties. We see Kayla spend an inordinate amount of effort curating her image for her Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube channel. At one point, Kayla puts on a full face of makeup before, hilariously, walking back to her bed in such a way as to prevent her hair from moving. After gingerly sliding under the covers, she is able to take a Snapchat of herself with her version of the “woke up like this” caption to post to her story.
For Kayla, the curating can only go so far before the graphic reality of her worst fear is realized: donning a bathing suit in public. After arriving at the birthday party of the reigning mean-girl (Kennedy Graves) in her class, Kayla has an anxiety attack in the bathroom that only the audience is privy to. After recovering, Kayla makes an uncomfortably long walk from the Graves’ family house down to the pool in her lime green swimsuit—almost as if self-consciously aware that all of the eyes from the theater are on her, despite the fact that none of the kids at the party seem to notice. During the long walk from the Graves’ family house down to the pool, Kayla’s YouTube audio from her video about “putting yourself out there” ironically plays over the scene. Enter every viewer’s worst fears playing out before their eyes: the swimsuit, the mean eighth graders, the judgment received for the quality of the gift you gave, the halfway self-conscious flirtation attempts by mid-pubescent American teenagers—it is horrible. The scene is totally cringy.
So what’s the point? Seriously. Why would Burnham subject the viewer to relive these horrific memories of a time of unmatched anxiety and awkwardness? There could be a lot of reasons, but perhaps the strongest among them is for the express purpose of empathy. In Burnham’s world, the middle schooler is the adult. Burnham’s comments in an interview with the New Yorker sum it up best:
“I did not set out to write a movie about eighth grade.… I wanted to talk about anxiety—my own anxiety—and I was coming to grips with that.”
Through seeing and feeling along with Kayla, we find ourselves staring in a mirror through a pimply, anxiety-filled middle schooler who just wants a really cool life. This illustration—this reflection—allows the contemporary person, teenager or adult, to see themselves and, surprisingly, to have empathy. We feel for Kayla’s awkwardness, we feel for her insatiable desire to be loved, we feel for her struggle to learn who she is, we feel for her body shame, we feel for her mindless hours spent on Instagram comparing herself to others. We feel for Kayla because we are Kayla.
For all the critiques that have been made about Generation Z being the worst, the most doomed, the most unable to socialize, and the laziest, perhaps if we looked closely, we might find that they have the same insecurities, doubts, and fears that adults have too. We’re all looking for significance, to be special, to be listened to, to be praised, to live a cool life. Whether these aspirations are “good” or “bad” is completely irrelevant in light of the fact that we have them. Furthermore, we are willing to go to great lengths to secure them; that seems to be the expression of the problem. Perhaps, socially, the only difference between adults and middle schoolers is that middle schoolers have the same anxiety we do—they’ve just had a screen in their hand before we did at their age.
The most important scene of Eighth Grade happens when Kayla decides to burn her “time capsule” shoebox that contains her memories from before entering middle school—relics of her past self. She enters a conversation with her father (Mark) around the burning box that Kayla says contains “nothing, really, just sort of my hopes and dreams.”
Kayla: “Do I make you sad?”
Mark: “What? No. No, not at all. Not at all. What? Why? Do I seem sad?”
Mark: “What? Why would you think you make me sad?”
Kayla: “I… I don’t know… it’s just… sometimes, you know, I think that when I’m older, you know, maybe I’ll have a daughter of my own or something, and… I feel like, you know, if she was like me, um, then being her mom would make me sad all the time. ‘Cause, like, you know I’d love her because she’s my daughter, you know, but, I don’t know… I just I think if she turned out like me that being her mom would make me really sad.”
At this moment Kayla’s pretense is put away and the viewer finally sees, with actual clarity, what Kayla thinks of herself and her own life. It is tragic, heartbreaking, and difficult to stomach. Yet, for the first time, we see Kayla remove the picture she wants for her life in favor of expressing how things actually feel. Gone are the demands from her videos about “being yourself” and “how to be confident” and enter the fruit of her labors on the internet: social anxiety, fear of failure, sadness.
It all may seem quite depressing—here’s a girl who has come to the end of her rope on a profoundly personal level. She has run out of emotional energy, she has stopped posting her YouTube videos, and she is coming to grips with the fact that her life isn’t what she wanted it to be. It turns out that being an eighth grader—being a human—is quite difficult. Through this moment of unadulterated honesty, the viewers find themselves in Kayla. The unfulfilled dreams of who we could be, the hopes of a fresh start with a new year, the expectation of finding love, hoping for wisdom, it all escapes Kayla. And, in a real sense, it escapes us. Through the eyes of a child the viewer begins to see, and perhaps more importantly, feel for Kayla.
While Kayla tries to figuratively burn away who she once was by literally burning her belongings, she finds that she has been wrong about where love can be found the whole time. She is comforted by her father who is completely confused as to why she would doubt his love for her. In fact, Mark loves his daughter so much that he tells her he is proud of her. He assures her has not stopped loving her even from when she was a child. He even tells her, certainly to Kayla’s delight, that he thinks she is “so cool.” Kayla’s only response is to get up, walk over to her father, and curl up in his lap.
This simple moment in the film gives a new name to the empathy her father expresses: love. For all of Kayla’s searching for love in boys (well, one boy) at school, likes on Instagram, and friends that would appreciate her, it turns out that the love of Kayla’s father gives her the strength to be okay again—to acknowledge, honestly, who she really is (she goes on to describe accurately her feelings to girls who were previously mean to her). It may come as no surprise to Christians that at her lowest is where the love of her father is the most compelling and seems to find her most deeply.
For the Christian, the echoes of the gospel are undeniable in that moment. For all of the striving, pain, and difficulty Kayla goes through to obtain love it turns out that a father’s love is what it takes to set her free. We cannot say with any legitimacy that Bo Burnham meant for Mark Day to be a type for God or for Jesus. However, it is difficult to deny the correlation between a love that precedes expressions of failure (e.g., Rom. 4:5) and sets someone free and the love that Jesus has given to people who have serious needs.
Jesus did meet a middle schooler once. She probably didn’t go to school and certainly didn’t have Snapchat. She was twelve years old, though. Jesus was on his way to go heal her, and she had died while he was on the journey. Yet, Jesus, in love, looked at this twelve-year-old who was in a completely helpless state and said, “Talitha cumi,” and she was made alive again. Is this not the power of a love that goes before? It is a love that brings the helpless to life and sets them free. Perhaps that is the real power of Eighth Grade. It is not that Kayla finds the will in herself to stand up to the world. Rather, she receives love which sets her free.