Eighth Grade, the directorial debut of YouTube alumnus and comedian Bo Burnham, was finally released in the UK in April. The film follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she attempts to navigate her final week of middle school before she starts high school after the summer break.
Kayla is lonely. She’s not like the usual “unpopular” protagonist in American teen movies – she’s not smart-mouthed or top of the class. Her classmates don’t actively bully or tease her. She doesn’t clap back with perfectly crafted witticisms. Kayla cares about what other people think of her. She cares that she doesn’t have friends. She’s alone, she’s largely unnoticed, and she’s lonely. Like most teenagers, she uses social media with a kind of desperation in an attempt to quell this feeling. She is a part of things, but distinctly removed. As Kayla scrolls and scrolls in her darkened room, her face is illuminated by the blue light of her phone and laptop, but she remains unseen. In Olivia Laing’s part-memoir book The Lonely City she states:
“The computer facilitated a pleasurably fluid, risk-free gaze, since nothing I looked at was precisely aware of my observing presence.”
“I wanted to declare my presence, to list my interests and objections, to notify the world that I was still there, thinking with my fingers, even if I’d almost lost the art of speech,” Laing writes. “I wanted to look and I wanted to be seen, and somehow it was easier to do both via the mediating screen.”
This passive socialising is something that made me think back to my own teen years – I may have grown up with different sites to Kayla, but the feelings were largely the same. If Kayla is in the eighth grade, we can assume that she’s around 14 years old. This is the age I was when I got my first smartphone, but Kayla is an iPhone native. Kayla carries the internet with her everywhere she goes. It’s in her pocket, at the dinner table, with her at school.
Although I had smartphone access at this age, the social media sites we were using didn’t require a constant presence. My friends and classmates were into texting and Facebook, but MSN was still relegated to the desktop computer. Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter had not yet taken off amongst my peers and the apps we did use didn’t require the same urgency as their successors. Unlike Twitter, people’s Facebook status updates were sporadic; if you checked back two minutes after you last closed the app, it was doubtful you’d have a whole new screen of content to read.
It’s only by taking a step back and removing herself from the internet that Kayla can make steps towards defeating the loneliness. This is not an anti-social media parable; the film doesn’t demonise the internet like a balding middle-aged broadsheet columnist. Kayla begins to find peace within herself by ceasing to make YouTube videos. She’s still online, but there are fewer pieces of her out there.
That’s something Eighth Grade does incredibly well – online and IRL are not separate spheres, they’re two places, apart but still occupying the same space. One can assume that Burnham’s YouTube origins are integral to the way his film presents its characters’ relationship to social media and surely sets a precedent for the work that will soon come from Gen Z filmmakers.
The idea that social media and loneliness are inextricable is key to the film, but greater than that is the idea that adolescence and loneliness are intertwined. Eighth Grade shows the internet to be not the root cause of teenage anxiety, but something that coexists beside it. Sometimes they overlap, but it’s not a chicken and egg scenario. Burnham’s film explores how teenagers try to navigate this overlap, and it does so in a generous, empathetic way. We feel for Kayla because we’ve been in her place, blue light illuminating our faces late at night. Perhaps we’re still in her place. But we feel for her, and Eighth Grade allows us to extend that empathy back towards ourselves.