“Eighth Grade” Movie Review


     There’s an unmistakable authenticity during every moment of writer/director Bo Burnham’s feature debut, “Eighth Grade”, a coming of age story providing a modern twist on everyday life as experienced by angst-ridden middle schoolers, as well as the pitfalls that come with our social media driven society.  Depending on your age and whether or not you’ve had children of your own, the story Burnham sets out to tell may prove shocking when you realize the lead character, Kayla (Elsie Fisher), is an accurate portrayal of today’s junior high aged children and the challenges they face daily to fit in, while constantly being bombarded by the highlight reels of others on Instagram and Snapchat and the feelings of not measuring up to what others are perceived to have.  As painfully ordinary as Kayla is, we quickly realize this is the new normal.  A notion we may dismiss as nothing more than a cautionary tale, but would be wise to examine further in order to avoid devastating future consequences for our children.

     George Carlin used to talk about how all a young child needed to play and entertain himself for hours was a stick found somewhere in the backyard.  You could dig holes, play with the critters you might unearth, and enjoy nature the way it was intended.  Today’s kids don't seem interested in the backyard anymore, instead choosing to spend hours cooped up in their bedrooms aimlessly staring at the social media feeds of their peers, as they conjure ongoing plans to trump up their own profiles in an effort to show their lives are full of good times and enviable experiences as well, even when it’s not truth.  You almost can’t help but feel bad for Kayla during the first handful of scenes in which we see her filming herself in her bedroom for a YouTube channel she has concocted where viewers will learn about her philosophies of teen existence.  Problem is, no one is watching, all the while others in her class enjoy the popularity of well followed Instagram feeds filled with likes, comments, and direct messages inquiring about their utterly fabulous lives.  It’s really sad, isn’t it?

     Yes, instead of focusing on learning, today’s kids are engulfed in a constant state of techno driven psycho babble, scrolling and posting their way through endless gigabytes of photos, videos, emojis, and poorly written text blurbs that do nothing for them other than activate an array of negative impulses.  And we, the parents, are actually allowing this to happen at an alarmingly young age.  Perhaps no circumstance in “Eighth Grade” better demonstrates the plight parents face with their kids than a scene where Kayla and her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), are having dinner at home.  Mark is desperately trying to connect with Kayla through real conversation, but finds it difficult since she is busy looking at her phone and has a pair of headphones in her ears.  Rather than disallowing her phone at the dinner table, Mark attempts to talk over whatever it is that is currently distracting Kayla, but her response proves disrespectful, as she ignores her father in favor of her social media feed.  It’s as if her only concern is what other people are doing at the moment.  People who likely no more than acquaintances, if that.

     And if the social media influences aren't enough, Burnham ensures the elephant in classrooms across the country today is addressed by having his characters receive in school instruction from a Police Officer on how to react when an Active Shooter threat is present on campus.  None of the kids really seem to take it seriously, as they sit under their desks during a drill and simply whip out their phones to see who posted what in the few minutes since they last checked.  Meanwhile, Kayla checks her YouTube account, revealing to the audience that most of her videos haven't even been watched one time.  Things do look up momentarily; however, when she is invited by the mom of the most popular girl in school to her daughter’s birthday party, but soon the dread of fitting into an uncharted social situation begins to envelop Kayla’s mind to the point where she isn’t sure if she really wants to go.

     Through all of it, Burnham injects a number of positive and heartwarming moments in the third act that give Kayla some light at the end of the tunnel as she prepares to transition from middle school to high school.  The aforementioned birthday party becomes an opportunity to meet Gabe (Jake Ryan), a kid who shares a lot more in common with Kayla than does her middle crush and resident bad boy Aiden (Luke Prael).  In addition, high school shadow day introduces Kayla to Olivia (Emily Robinson), a super positive senior to be who brings Kayla under her wing and exposes her to some of the obstacles ahead.  Still though, one has to wonder how this generation will ultimately succeed with so much superfluous information constantly pinging within their brains.  Add to that, the constant threat of a tragic school shooting and it’s a wonder these kids actually learn anything.  A thought that really makes you respect the job our teachers are doing on a daily basis, as they contend with an ever-growing list of impossible issues in the classroom.

     There have been several films over the years that have explored the relationship between kids and social media with varying degrees of extreme circumstance.  On one end of the spectrum, you have 2013’s “Disconnect”, which examined, among other things, the effects of cyber bullying and the devastating potential consequences that can result. On the other end, you have 2015’s “Unfriended”, which exploited the topic by using social media as a plot device furthering a supernatural horror premise.  Burnham, perhaps for the first time in a film, has indicated the very ordinary nature of every day children and their consistent exposure to these digital platforms without working in some extreme consequence to their behavior.  In other words, this is something everyone is doing, even though they know it might be bad for them, or as “Eighth Grade” demonstrates, it has apparently become a societal norm.  A norm that somehow has resulted in a near one thousand dollar phone in every kid’s pocket.  I guess we must’ve ran out of sticks.