Eighth Grade and Our Crimes Against Bo Burnham

Evelyn Meeker, Editor-in-Chief

Let me paint a picture for you: looking up, you are blinded by the shine of aggressive fluorescent lights; all around, you can feel the pushing and shoving of frantic bodies; looking down, your feet are scuttering up an endless flight of stairs— but this is no stairway to heaven. There is chaos all around, and the most consuming is the chaos striking at your stomach and your chest. You feel your heart beating faster and faster as your eyes dart and your palms sweat and your mind becomes blurred… Welcome to middle school.

Of course, middle school is not the same for everyone. Some may look back on those days with fond memories of lighter homework and time with friends. For many, however, middle school is an inexplicably traumatic and emotionally-charged time, especially for an anxious teen.

This is what comedian Bo Burnham aims to address in his film Eighth Grade. The movie made its debut at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, then went on to appear at several other notable venues such as the San Francisco and Seattle International Film Festivals before wide release. While Burnham was unsure what kind of reactions would be garnered, acclaim came quickly with critics such as Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers going as far as to say “I’ve been talking and thinking about this fun-to-decode, impossible-to-forget gift from the cinema gods since I saw it at Sundance in January.”

In a recent interview, Burnham told IndieWire Sundance Studio, “It’s a story about, hopefully, how intense small things are.” This is precisely what his movie achieves. Eighth Grade runs an hour and thirty-four minutes, though it only covers eighth grader Kayla’s last week of school. While many cinematic works take on lengthier stretches of multiple years, or even occur across undefined periods where time, unfortunately, takes a backseat to other artistic details, Eighth Grade aims to zoom in on the more tangible aspects of real life.

Burnham went on to describe the process of creating his film “A regular day to an eighth grader feels like life and death, so can we take a regular day and make it feel like life and death? Can we take very banal, simple situations and, through film, make them feel to the audience like they feel to [Kayla]?” Elsie Fisher’s commendable performance as Kayla is incredibly natural, through every cringe-worthy YouTube video and every heart-pounding panic attack she endures. In fact, this movie may feel just a little too real for the audience. With close, personal shots, realistic dialogue, and sometimes iPhone lighting, Burnham’s work transports the viewer to a setting they may not want to revisit. So, why go there?

Sitting beside Burnham in this interview, the leading lady, Elsie Fisher, said, “It showed me the message that I hope other people get out of this.” The message Fisher addresses is that, in both brutal simplicity and brutal honesty, middle school sucks. Though incredibly counter intuitive, it is important to be authentic during these times as everyone is feeling the same way. She went on to discuss her own feelings of loneliness during adolescence, and how it is easy to feel like a misunderstood freak. Adolescents are often assured that they are not alone in what they are feeling, though they can never truly believe that until they see it. Eighth Grade is one of the few movies that portrays the vulnerability of middle school accurately, and has the power to make this younger audience feel heard and understood.

Unfortunately, the R rating of the movie prohibits this vital message from reaching the audience which needs it most. The MPAA assigned this rating on the basis of explicit language and sexual, sometimes even violent references. But, in truth, the mature content was vital to Burnham’s vision as an artist, and his goal to portray the adolescent years with unwavering honesty. Even so, this is not the only factor deterring potential viewers. Many people, whether teenagers with middle school fresh in the mind, or adults who have already come out on the other end, may be inclined to avoid Eighth Grade based on its uncomfortable nature and cringe factor. But, do not be mistaken. As the audience grows increasingly tense, wincing and holding on for dear life, it is not a judgement on the quality of the film— at least, not the one you might think. The viewers feel a sense of solidarity through Kayla’s many highs and lows, often in the form of second hand anxiety. This, once again, speaks for the honesty of the story, as well as the care put into it.

For all of these reasons, to not at the very least look in Eighth Grade’s direction is both a crime to the thoughtful craftsmanship of Bo Burnham, and a crime to your eighth grade self.


For the sake of thoughtful artists, here are a few suggestions for movies that may have gone under your radar:

Whip It; Edge of Seventeen; Good Vibrations; Sing Street; Get Out; Little Miss Sunshine; The Way, Way Back; (500) Days of Summer; Moonrise Kingdom; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Rushmore; Juno; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; Stranger Than Fiction; Donnie Darko; Boyhood.