Two recent films speak to the abiding needs, and the evolving predicaments, of children.
Eighth Grade is notable for its pitch-perfect take on early adolescent angst: the all-absorbing self-consciousness; the aching sense of exclusion; the sudden fixation on, and endless curation of, one’s “look.” From the parental point of view, middle school is when every bit of playful, joyous curiosity that your child has shown up until now gets vacuumed away, leaving a nervous, distracted, and sporadically surly stranger.
And from the thirteen-year-old’s point of view? That’s where writer-director Bo Burnham and his star, Elsie Fisher, achieve a bit of forlorn magic. Fisher plays Kayla, a shy and ungainly eighth grader, the only child of a single dad (Josh Hamilton). It was smart of Burnham to choose as protagonist not someone who is bullied, but merely ignored; anonymity, rather than indignity, is Kayla’s fate. Her reticence crashes against the self-salesmanship recommended by her father, who urges her to “put yourself out there”—advice Kayla poignantly tries to follow, filling her notebook with lists of how to make friends and be assertive. But no amount of assertiveness training can change the fact that she‘s uncool, and wants it all too badly.
Burnham’s investigation of Kayla’s unhappiness places the protocols of digital culture and social media front and center. She lives on her device, and Eighth Grade captures the fragmented, ADHD-like rhythm of life in the digital age, even as it cues up a paradox: How to put yourself out there when real life is in here, in the enclosed and jittery realm of the web? That is where Kayla wants to be loved—or at least Liked. But while the teen makeup guru whose YouTube vlogs Kayla watches has 2 million views, her own earnest, stumbling attempts at advice videos—collected in a site she calls “Kayla’s Corner”—garner none. The excruciating paradox is that Kayla is desperate for someone, anyone, to listen to her online (the “you” whom she so hopefully addresses in her videos), while deflecting any and all attempts by her real-life father to talk with her. “I just want to be on my phone right now, OK?” she says, unplugging one earbud to brusquely ward off his conversational entreaties.
Burnham explores how the obsession with online life intensifies Kayla’s despair, as popular classmates frolic amid a never-ending churn of messaging, parties, and fun—and she can do nothing but watch, a social-media spectatorship that ramps up envy. To try to counter that envy, she formulates life lessons that she herself can’t follow. “The topic of today’s video is being yourself,” she asserts in Kayla’s Corner. “Don’t care about what other people think about you!” Not care? A sequence in which Kayla attends the pool party of a popular rich girl (whose mother forces her to extend an invitation) is a small tour de force, as we follow slump-shouldered, chubby Kayla, awkward in an ill-fitting lime-green bathing suit, through an afternoon of casual rejections.
Eighth Grade has its flaws. In depicting Kayla’s vulnerability, Burnham loads the dice, saddling her with a father who is laughably inept at advising her, and a social isolation so total that she seems never to have had a friend, ever. The film’s coming-of-age happy ending seems like a patch job. Nothing in it compares, for instance, with the movement at the end of last year’s Lady Bird, marking an authentic passage toward adulthood—or with that film’s nuanced evocation of family life.
In contrast, Eighth Grade feels like pretty thin stuff. But the thinness of the social texture Burnham surrounds Kayla with may be less realistic than diagnostic. Eighth Grade lays bare the glaring insufficiency of life lived trapped within the digital realm. It’s useful to place Burnham’s film in the company of The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, The Outsiders, and other teen films of the 1980s. Those movies put their young cohorts through all sorts of age-related tribulations. But those kids were, first and foremost, cohorts, and in comparison with their group solidarity and shared hijinks, today’s tween-teen experience seems mighty lonely.