The film industry is responsible for how the public perceives an array of issues, with people looking to movies for a sense of personal representation. Theatres are commonly littered with films centered around storylines that are lived out by young adult actors; thus, media and movies alike cater primarily to a more mature demographic. Such casting is not limited by genre – one can watch romance, horror, comedy, tragedy, or action movies through the lenses of experienced actors. However, as the film industry capitalizes off of stories portrayed by adults, are they altogether disregarding a potential audience? Yes, movies are constantly made for elementary viewers by popular franchises such as Disney and Pixar, but this bridges a clear gap between age representation that cuts right through the preteen demographic. For those who are no longer seen as children but not yet considered teenagers, wouldn’t more visibility in the media offer a sense of comfort amidst an already awkward transitional period? Bo Burnham thinks so.
The 27-year old comedian made his directing debut with Eighth Grade, a comedy-drama that hit theatres July 20thafter being shown in the U.S. Dramatic Competition subdivision at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film follows Kayla Day, played by Elsie Fisher, as she grapples with the harsh reality of finishing her eighth-grade year and preparing for the intimidating prospect of high school. At times overcome with anxiety and awkwardness, Day lives her last year of middle school as an outcast, constantly at war with accepting herself; she makes a point to avoid any attention while in the confines of the classroom, surrounded by spiteful students, yet seeks the spotlight at home, in the safety of her bedroom. Behind the camera, Day puts up a façade, acting as if she is a self-help coach with thousands of listeners. In reality, her YouTube videos filled with inspirational advice – that she fails to live by – reach no one but herself.
The role of social media in this film only intensifies the already-toxic nature that surrounds the life of an eighth grader. Scrolling through a feed overflowing with picture-perfect glimpses into the lives of her peers proves to be disastrous for Day, who, like most kids at her age, desperately craves acceptance. In fear of becoming a target of torment for the snarky students she goes to school with, she essentially ostracizes herself from any social interactions that are not virtual. Burnham describes the internal thoughts of the main character, explaining, “Kayla doesn’t even say the word anxiety. She thinks: I’m the only one feeling the way that I’m feeling.” Closed off from potential friendships, Day also shuts out her well-intentioned father at home, creating an atmosphere of isolation that proves to be damaging to her mental health.
Immediately following its release, Eighth Grade received an outpouring of praise from all age ranges, especially giving hope to those who looked to its prepubescent protagonist, Kayla Day, for a sense of relatability. The popular movie review site, Rotten Tomatoes, gave Eighth Grade an impressive rating of 98 percent, while the film also achieved the notable feat of earning “the highest per-screen average box-office take of any film released in the US in 2018 thus far.” With such an evident and positive critique following the release of Eighth Grade, its importance within the media industry and society alike cannot be overstated. Its positive reception further proves how necessary such a movie is – one depicting a young girl on the brink of her teenage years undergoing all of the difficulties that come with growing up.
Burnham’s unfiltered script paired with the raw acting of breakout actress Elsie Fisher makes for a refreshingly realistic portrayal of what it is truly like to come into adolescence in the modern-day. With this audience frequently neglected by the media in favor of more mature themes, many view their stories as insignificant or juvenile; this misconception only further separates them from any feeling of security and the possibility of overcoming their individual struggles. Giving representation to kids who are experiencing life in their most vulnerable state is undoubtedly having an impact. Burnham reveals the touching reactions people had to the movie, saying that “he’s hearing from plenty of kids – and plenty of anxious parents after screenings too.” Burnham’s thoughtful directing enables the film to successfully uncover the discomfort that everyone feels weighed down by at times. For middle-schoolers facing the constant pressure of fitting in while still not knowing who they truly are yet, Eighth Grade gives them valuable reassurance: they are not alone.