“Eighth Grade helps fill a void of complex young women in film, but its complete disinterest in characters of color feels limiting.”
Title: Eighth Grade (2018)
Director: Bo Burnham 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Bo Burnham 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
I’m not going to lie—I watched Eighth Grade through my fingers. First-time director Bo Burnham expertly translates the awkwardness of young adolescence to the screen and actor Elsie Fisher embodies the sweet, but anxious Kayla Day with such authenticity, I felt steeped in secondhand mortification from start to finish. For this reason, I had a hard time relaxing and enjoying the film despite its technical strength.
Burnham really does shine a light on the transition between childhood and teenage years with fresh eyes, exposing the way modern technology aids and abets our core human natures. The movie deserves the accolades it’s received, but for me personally, I’m happy to leave it with just one viewing.
Eighth Grade centers Kayla’s experiences and portrays her with deep complexity. Boys and a fixation on becoming more sexually experienced does occupy much of her thoughts, and a memorable scene involves predatory (but thankfully not physical) behavior from a high school senior. But all of her reactions feel in-character and told from her vulnerable perspective, rather than tacked on with a pesky male gaze. Importantly, just as much of Kayla’s insecurity stems from difficulty in making platonic friends, or in struggling with too-high expectations for herself.
Other films might pick up full points in this category for celebrating a huge array of different women and their relationships with each other, but Eighth Grade exhibits a much narrower lens, preferring to submerge into the depths of one young woman. As a report from USC Annenberg points out, we see so few healthy (read: non-sexualized) depictions of young women in media. But thanks to Fisher’s incredible performance, Kayla Day makes a great addition to the roster.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 10% of key cast and crew members were POC.
The only characters of color who come to mind involve a token Mean Girl of Color who I don’t think is ever called by name, and another lone Black friend at the high school Kayla visits. The imbalance seems innocuous at first, as opposed to some titles that incongruously throw white casts into diverse cities like Los Angeles or New York City. But when you consider the filming location of Suffern Middle School in Suffern, NY, where 1 in 5 students were Hispanic in the 2016-17 school year, Eighth Grade starts to look pretty guilty of Latinx erasure.
There were certainly opportunities for more diversity. Despite the central nervous system of Kayla’s story, a large supporting cast fleshes out the film. More of the eighth graders seen during a classmate’s birthday party could have been Latinx, Asian, or African American (the top three ethnic minorities at Suffern Middle School), as could have Kayla’s crush, or more of the high school seniors participating in the middle school shadow program. Even background characters veer predominately white.
Bonus for Disability: +0.75
Eighth Grade cultivates a petri dish of peer pressure, confusing hormones, and toxic social media and shows how easy it is to succumb to it all. The film handles the concoction with such deftness, I can’t help but think some of it was informed by Burnham’s own experience as a young YouTuber who began performing on the platform at age 15.
Throughout it all, Kayla navigates this world with admirable, if stumbling strength. Despite near-debilitating levels of anxiety that, for example, lead her to sequestering herself during a party just to try and breathe, she pushes through and embodies the idea that vulnerability truly is strength.
In a key moment, she finds herself so shook that she decides to step back from social media. It’s a refreshing depiction of self-care—in this case, Kayla creating a farewell video and announcing that she’ll be going on hiatus. Decompressing and taking care of one’s mental health isn’t as simple as booking a vacation these days, and it’s important for other filmmakers to acknowledge the complexity of today’s many-pronged pressures.
Mediaversity Grade: C+ 3.58/5
Eighth Grade helps fill a void of seeing young women in non-sexualized roles, though its complete disinterest in characters of color feels limiting. Perhaps for that reason—or the age discrepancy, or the vast difference from my own middle school experience—the themes of Eighth Grade didn’t connect for me. Regardless, Burnham’s clear ability to tell stories can’t be denied, and I look forward to seeing what he has in store for the future.