Bo Burnham's 'Eighth Grade' isn't trying to teach you anything, and that's the beauty of it


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Eighth Grade, a coming-of-age story, captures the experience of middle school in a true-to-life fashion. It deals with the issues of fitting in.
Time

The modern coming-of-age movie “Eighth Grade” has been praised by just about every news outlet or magazine.

Written and directed by YouTuber-turned-stand-up-comedian Bo Burnham, the film’s been lauded for its realistic, no-holds-barred look into the teen experience.

It portrays timeless themes like body-image, romance and fitting in. But it also elegantly hones in on the dynamic, and perhaps inseparability, between digital culture and Generation Z.  

The funny thing is that the film is neither for nor against social media. There’s no takeaway lesson that Burnham’s forcing down your throat. He’s just trying to capture real life.  

Essentially, the movie has no agenda, Burnham told All The Moms.

And that’s the beauty of it. 

So what’s ‘Eighth Grade’ about?

Note: Spoilers ahead!

The movie opens with teenager Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher, speaking into a camera for her YouTube channel. A little nervous, a little pimply, and a whole lot relatable, she’s talking about how she doesn’t have many likes on her videos yet and how people tend to see her as quiet and shy, even though she’s really outgoing but just doesn’t talk much at school.

During the film, we stay with Kayla for her last few weeks of middle school.

We’re with her when she’s awarded the title “most quiet” at a school assembly. *Sigh.*

We endure a painfully awkward birthday pool-party, where Kayla’s only given an invite because popular girl Kennedy’s mom made her. 

We triumph with her when she takes her own self-help YouTube advice and fakes confidence to volunteer for karaoke. 

We giggle when she *freaks* out over a high school girl actually wanting to be her friend and hang out.

We don’t know how to feel about the students and teachers’ apathetic reactions to active-shooter drills.

We cringe when an older boy tries to put the moves on her and she’s nearly stunned into paralysis not knowing how to get out of it. 

And we lift our brows (OK, maybe laugh a little) when her crush Aiden’s (Luke Prael) only litmus test for a potential girlfriend is if she’ll send nudes.

Why it feels so realistic and how Burnham did it

The film is funny and sad, sweet and uncomfortable. It is a powerful mixture of timely and timeless.

But its raw and accurate depiction of teenage life today is only made possible through Burnham’s absent motive and adept listening. It’s up to the viewer to determine what the story’s takeaway is. And that’s where the opportunity — and magic — lies.  

“My issue sometimes with movies about kids is that it feels like they’re trying to impart lessons,” Burnham told USA TODAY’s All the Moms. “It feels like adults looking back on a time they’re certain of, trying to teach young kids about what they went through.”

But in today’s hybrid world of cyber and reality, everything’s “new and confusing to everybody,” he said. 

So to be as real as possible, Burnham didn’t go around interviewing kids to learn about them. He just watched kids talk about themselves online. 

“Online they’re presenting themselves and concealing themselves and trying to prove a false version of themselves,” he said. But being 13, it’s all very obvious and transparent, he added.

Essentially: It’s easy to see through the false personas. Parents can learn more about kids through digital channels than they may realize. 

“You’re getting to learn who they actually are and who they wish they were,” Burnham said. “It’s a really full version of themselves to be able to see the person they’re struggling with being and the person they’re struggling to be.” 

But still, it’s not advocating a side. “Eighth Grade” viewers see YouTube affect Kayla positively as an outlet for her to come into her own, but they also see it consume her. 

For Burnham, who rose to fame via his own YouTube channel, his only statement on social media’s impact might be the anxiety it can induce:

“I think anxiety has to do with being in your own head and not being present in the moment. Social media causes people to overthink things and detach from themselves and see themselves from a third-eye perspective.”

Why parents should see this with their kids (and ignore the R-rating)

The Motion Picture Association of America handed out an R-rating to the film, prohibiting children 17 and younger from viewing it in theaters without parents. The rating is probably due to under-age actors spewing profanities, discussing nude texts, and, at one point, a YouTube lesson on how to give a blowjob that’s followed by the main character attempting on a banana. 

But Burnham disagrees with the MPAA, saying there’s nothing in the movie that most kids that age don’t already see or hear.

And unlike the Internet, which is unprotected, he said his movie provides emotional context “so you understand the significance and the meaning.”

And to be clear, there’s is no actual graphic content in the film.

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides unbiased movie ratings and reviews based on age appropriateness, said the movie is “great for families” and suitable for kids 14 and older

In response, the movie’s independent production company, A24, rented out 50 theaters across the U.S. (one per state), to air free screenings for teens. A spokeswoman for the company said A24 would be “providing viewers the tickets directly starting one hour before showtime.” 

Common Sense Media’s executive editor Betsy Bozdech said “Eighth Grade” provides valuable opportunities to open up conversation between parents and children.  

“It offers a laundry list of talking points around realistic experiences that teens are having, so we think it’s really important for teens to see this,” Bozdech said. 

Common Sense Media: Use this movie as a talking point with teens

Bozdech said talking about serious issues through the veil of a movie makes it easier for parents and children to be honest with each other.

Here are a few questions to consider asking your teen:

  1. How realistic is this movie? Can you relate to Kayla’s struggles?  
  2. Is Kayla a role model? Why or why not?
  3. What do you think about the amount of time Kayla spends on social media?
  4. Should we try a dinner without devices?
  5. Did the child-parent relationship seem accurate or exaggerated?
  6. Was there more swearing than you’re used to in the movie? Or was that about right? 

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