‘Eighth Grade’ and the Horror of Being Unknown

Photo by Josh Ethan Johnson, courtesy of A24

One of this summer’s most buzzed-about films, Eighth Grade, is not a horror film. But at times it feels like one.

That’s how well director Bo Burnham and his film’s cast of 13- and 14-year-olds capture the painful awkwardness of junior-high life in 2018. On top of the vulnerabilities that have been true of every generation of eighth graders (puberty, social awkwardness, acne, and so on), today’s kids filter the whole experience through phones, social media, the internet, and its accompanying anxieties. As well as any film in recent memory, Eighth Grade captures the nuances of how technology shapes the lives of teens today. The film feels effortlessly insightful on this front, no doubt because its creator, Burnham, is a 27-year-old digital native who got his start as a popular YouTuber. He instinctively gets social media and how it channels and exacerbates human anxieties, and so Eighth Grade never feels preachy as much as it feels on-point.

For anyone seeking to understand and disciple today’s youth, Eighth Grade provides an insightful glimpse into their world.

For parents, pastors, and teachers of teenagers today, the “horror” of Eighth Grade is thus also instructive, offering a funny/scary/cringe-inducing drama to pair with books like Nancy Jo Sales’s American Girls or Jean Twenge’s iGen. It’s not an easy film to watch, but for anyone seeking to understand and disciple today’s youth, Eighth Grade provides an insightful glimpse into their world.

Lost in Digital Space

Eighth Grade opens with a webcam perspective on its 13-year-old heroine, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), recording a video for her YouTube channel. In this episode, Kayla’s tutorial topic is “Being Yourself.” Searching awkwardly for wise-sounding words to share with her depressingly small audience of subscribers, she talks about how, like, you know, everything will work out if you are just “being yourself.” Struggling to make friends in the real world (she’s awarded “most quiet” at her school’s end-of-year superlatives ceremony), Kayla is most at home in digital spaces. Throughout the film, her vlog episodes (on topics like “Put Yourself Out There” and “How to Be Confident”) pitch themselves as “advice” when they are really just telegraphing Kayla’s own inner conversations. Raised in a world increasingly alien to the concepts of silence, privacy, and interior worlds, Kayla and her peers live mediated lives where their thoughts (and sadly often their bodies) are constantly and willingly made public.

Raised in a world increasingly alien to the concepts of silence, privacy, and interior worlds, Kayla and her peers live mediated lives where their thoughts (and sadly often their bodies) are constantly and willingly made public.

The brilliance of Eighth Grade is that it gives viewers glimpses into the “real” Kayla, even as she—like all her friends—“performs” the preferred version of herself as an aspiring social media brand in the Kardashian vein (Kayla’s trademark YouTube sign-off is saying “Gucci!” with a weird hand signal). The film shows the disturbing disconnect between online confidence and in-person self-consciousness. Kayla is most at ease in the privacy of her bedroom, laptop open, phone in hand, getting lost in the sea of Google and Instagram (Burnham hilariously, and disturbingly, sets this sequence to the “sail away, sail away” music of Enya’s trance-like “Orinoco Flow”). For Kayla, the buffer of screens allows her to observe and create and explore (googling things she’d be embarrassed to admit she doesn’t know about yet) without fear of judgment.

But away from screens and in the sea of real, in-flesh tween bodies, Kayla is exposed. A pool-party scene depicts this most literally and viscerally, as Kayla reluctantly attends the birthday of a popular (mean) girl named Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere). The moment Kayla arrives and walks into the backyard, clad in a swimsuit and praying no one notices her, is a moment that will be horrifyingly familiar to most viewers. Given the intense exposure and self-consciousness of the “real world,” it’s no wonder Kayla retreats to the comfort and control of life behind devices.

The irony, though, is that the things Kayla finds comforting about her digital “safe space”—relational distance and a measure of anonymity—are the very things that leave her even more isolated and hungry for connection. Ultimately she wants what everyone wants: relationships. She wants more friends. She wants to be known and loved. And while the internet can make it seem like this is happening—with likes and views and affirmations aplenty—it never fully satisfies.

We all want to be known and loved. And while the internet can make it seem like this is happening—with likes and views and affirmations aplenty—it never fully satisfies.

Not Just Adolescent Anxiety

For Kayla, YouTube views and Instagram likes become idols and metrics of worth, in part because they make it easy to quantify how many people see you. But to be seen in the flesh, whether at the pool or sitting alone in the school cafeteria, is ironically an anxiety-inducing thing of terror. In those moments, Kayla wants to be invisible. This is the Catch 22 of Kayla’s world, and ours. Social media and online “platform” have become easy and deceiving outlets where our longings to be known find temporary satisfaction. But the existential gap between online “fans” and real-world “friends” turns out to be huge. Kayla ultimately recognizes the superficiality of online “connection,” and so she pushes herself to step offline and attempt real-world relationship, terribly awkward as it is.

Whether online or off, Kayla longs to be seen, to be noticed, like so many of us in today’s celebrity-obsessed world. It’s a world where people are so tempted by the allures of fame, affirmation, and escaping boredom and anonymity, that they are willing to do ridiculous and often dangerous things, just to be noticed. True-story films like Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013) or this summer’s American Animals—about four Kentucky college students who attempt an Oceans 11-type heist because they fear living “ordinary” lives—showcase this pursuit well. So does Eighth Grade, which at one point shows Kayla ill-advisedly alone in a car with an older boy who seems nice and pays attention to her.

Social media and online ‘platform’ have become easy and deceiving outlets where our longings to be known find temporary satisfaction. But the existential gap between online ‘fans’ and real-world ‘friends’ turns out to be huge.

More than just a cautionary tale for the parents of Generation Z, Eighth Grade reminds all of us that any good desire can become destructive when directed in the wrong place. The film is not just about the vulnerabilities of adolescence. It’s about the vulnerabilities of all of us in this world, where the human longings we’ve always had—to be known, loved, significant—are amplified and misdirected by the temptations of technology.

Though the film’s plot has echoes of his own teen YouTuber autobiography, Burnham has said he wanted Eighth Grade to reflect not just his experience or the generic experience of junior high, but the experience of living in the internet age.

“I wanted to write about my own anxiety, I wanted to write about the internet, and it felt like my anxiety was tied to the internet,” he said. “The internet makes eighth-graders of everyone.”

Father’s Pursuing Love

If 13-year-old Kayla stands in for all of usas self-conscious, searching-for-love-in-the-wrong-places spiritual adolescents—then the presence of Kayla’s father in the film (Josh Hamilton) hints at an answer to our perpetual anxiety.

To be sure, Kayla’s single dad, Mark, is not a direct stand-in for God (Kayla does pray to God at one point in the film, albeit a moralistic therapeutic deism version). Mark is a flawed man whose parenting choices are far from perfect. But he’s also the one person in the movie who continually pursues Kayla, wanting a real relationship with her; wanting to know her deeply, unplugged and enfleshed; wanting her to receive his love.

But Kayla often rejects him, embarrassed by his relentless pursuit. Some of the funniest “awkward dad” moments in the film are also the most insightful into our spiritual resistance to God’s fatherly love and grace. When Kayla isolates herself in her dark room, Dad knocks at the door. When she’s at the dinner table, gazing at her phone with her earbuds plugged in, Dad tries to engage. When she’s at the mall meeting up with new high-school friends, Dad secretly watches from afar. This is all horrifying to Kayla. She wants to be independent, free from her nerdy dad’s hovering presence. But in the end, Kayla comes to realize what all stubborn sinners do: that the Father’s persistent love is far more satisfying than the fickle, ephemeral love we seek elsewhere. His affirmation of usfree, unmerited, bought by the blood of Christis infinitely greater than the affirmation of fans, followers, readers, subscribers, clicks, likes, and everything else.

We just have to turn away from our phones long enough to receive it.

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