I’m no film expert or critic. I’m not exactly in the position to preach anything about the cinematic experience, about what makes something artistically “good” or “bad” – although I’ve done that before and will most likely do it again (refer to my Stealing Beauty movie review from many moons ago). Instead of trying to get all the right words out, I’d rather delve into how Bo Burnham’s directing debut actually gave me an anxiety attack, #triggered me, if you will. Please spare me the eye-rolls and hear me out.
The film centers around Kayla Day, a present-day insecure, stuttering, social media- addicted, and unavoidably lovable eighth grader walking through her last week of middle school. The subdued fire inside her that she fights to make seen is one of the many personality traits I connected to from the beginning, recalling all the time I also spent alone trying to enhance my personality and prepare for the performance of everyday life. The embarrassment and disappointment Kayla feels when class superlatives are announced and she’s labeled “Most Quiet” strikes a harsh chord for anyone who’s ever been deeply misunderstood. I remember being told that I was “mysterious” in high school. I remember feeling like I was easy to forget in contrast to the look-at-me personalities who dominated the stage at all times with ease. Like Kayla, I wanted the attention too, and knew I could own it when the timing was right – but anxiety forced me into a shell. In the confines of my room, on stage during dance recitals, in front of the camera when no one was looking, and in the safe embrace of my journals, I came alive.
Kayla’s overwhelming urge to be seen and liked, the to-do lists and talking points written on sticky notes throughout her bedroom and bathroom, the YouTube Channel used as an outlet to transform into her “better” and more confident self, poignantly shed light on all the ways people with anxiety incessantly try to improve, even from as early a stage as puberty. The powerful reality of this portrayal is truly a testament to Elsie Fisher’s acting chops. She fully embodies the sense of urgency and desperation throughout, which makes the viewer impatient for her moment in the sun too.
I shed one tear of many when Kayla courageously chooses to sing karaoke in front of her classmates instead of bail from a pool party hosted by a fellow and more popular eighth grader. This particular character’s lack of empathy, and her blinding desire to be cool shoved me into memories I had blocked out for many years. All of a sudden, I was reminded of every time I had been inhumanely judged and treated like less for being myself. For instance, that time in eighth grade one of my earliest friends from elementary school refused to sign my yearbook in front of two of the “coolest” guys in middle school because, at that point, she had grown too popular to be seen acknowledging me. I was “weird” and she was “normal”. That was that. I swallowed my pride and walked away. I believe that was the day I realized what it meant to be a sociopath, blatantly devoid of empathy, and that I would always be different (Is that too harsh an insult for a thirteen-year-old girl? Oh well!). With that being said, I was blown away by Kayla’s ability to stand up and sing in front of her judgmental classmates, even though she knew they could eat her alive. Miraculously, we watch as her classmates actually smile along and get hypnotized by her enigmatic light for that one song – the first of many moments when she lets herself be seen. The scene is truly a testament to the power of conquering your fears, a skill we develop and reap the benefits from at any age.
As the movie plays out, we watch Kayla develop her own version of confidence. She finds a way to finally talk to her crush during a school shooting emergency drill, meets up with her new high school friends at the mall, and eventually speaks up for herself when one of the high school boys forces himself on her. Though it takes her a while to say ‘no’ to him, the self-assuredness in her voice when she does is enough for him to stop. It’s a heartbreaking moment in the movie to watch, because anyone who suffers from anxiety empathizes with the mental juggling she has to get through all at once: wanting to appease this older guy, fearing for her social life that he’ll talk shit about her to the new friends she desperately wants to keep, and, most important of all, the part of her that is deeply uncomfortable and wants to tell him to back off. The fact that this scene is drawn out for so long conveys the reality and horror of what can unfold when you’re battling with too many inner voices at the same time. I’ve been there, and I know countless others have too.
Eventually, after all of this, we get to a scene where Kayla and her dad burn a shoebox full of memories she had saved in the 6th grade for her 8th grade self. This is the moment that triggered my own anxiety in such a way that had me crying and unsettled for a couple of hours after we left the theater. As Kayla burns her past belongings, a symbolic act of self-destruction in which she burns away her past and a lot of her present self in the process, she asks her dad if he is ever saddened by her existence. His reaction, his desperate need to nurture a deeply embedded sense of insignificance, is perfect.
He reminds Kayla that everything she had accomplished, all of the genuine kindness and creativity inside her, was hers alone – traits he watched her develop in awe without his guidance. Regardless of how little she saw in herself, he would always be her biggest fan. This hit me hard. I often looked for this reassurance in my parents growing up too. I carried the guilt of feeling like a disappointment, like if I could just be better, if I could just be more extraordinary, everyone in my life would be happier. It often plagues me that so many people carry the weight of this pain, a version of self-criticism that can lead to more pressing mental health issues down the line. As I left the theater, I realized that I was still a version of my middle school self: insecure, afraid, and full of guilt at times. It made me realize that we never stop evolving and that’s why Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade stands the test of time. It’s about being human, wanting to be seen, and fighting the good fight.