There’s a reason almost everyone you know cringes just hearing the phrase “eighth grade.” My aunt, a veteran middle school teacher, once explained the misery of the age like this: almost overnight, you begin to feel emotions at an adult level of intensity, without the cognitive development and life experience that grant adults the ability to process and understand those emotions. If the fundamental horror of adolescence were articulable in real time, we could set those memories aside as merely unfortunate and mercifully irrelevant. The teen years haunt us because puberty is like a kind of possession: unseen and unspeakable forces distort your perception and influence your actions in ways you won’t be able to untangle for years.
Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s tenderly excruciating movie about a girl living through the last week of that brutal school year, captures many of the malignant shadows that cloud our vision during this time: shame, which corrupts the past; embarrassment, which poisons the present; anxiety, which obscures the future. But the film’s dominant note, the shade it examines most richly and subtly, is the same emotion that first jumps to mind when most of us recall being 13 years old: humiliation. It winds through and undergirds the other spectres of adolescence, because humiliation—as Burnham’s film intimately understands— is about the same question that underpins so much adolescent terror: your self.
i. watching your back like you can’t relax
The first thing we hear in Eighth Grade is the aural ellipsis of Photo Booth preparing to record. The first thing we see is Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), looking wide-eyed into the camera with an expression aiming for sunny and landing somewhere near desperate. In this first video, destined like all her others for a view count in the single-digits, she says:
A lot of people like call me quiet or shy or whatever. But I’m not quiet. Like, I don’t talk a lot at school, but, um, I just—it’s not like I’m scared to not talk, I just don’t want to. But if like people actually, you know, like, be my friend, like, you know, talk to me and stuff, they’d find out that I’m like, really funny and cool and talkative.
A few scenes later, eighth grade superlatives are announced at a school assembly; Kayla is voted “Most Quiet.” When her name is read, her face crumples in on itself in heartbreaking resignation. No one makes fun of Kayla—no one even seems to notice. The problem is not that she’s viewed poorly or even that she isn’t seen at all; the problem is that the moniker proves the ways she’s failed herself. This is where humiliation lives: in the gap between the self we want to be and the self we actually are.
I wasn’t a quiet kid, exactly, but I’ve always been shy. My mother told me once, trying to be encouraging, Just don’t do that voice you do, the one you think people will like. I knew the voice she meant—high-pitched, fluttering with nervous breath, manically polite with a constant edge of nervous laughter—and I wanted to cry. I don’t do it because I think people will like it. It’s just the noise that comes out of a body I can’t train out of tensing itself in anticipation of my next failure. I can tell myself all the round truths handed down by parents of shy kids—that everyone is weird and nervous, and other people aren’t as scary as they seem, and who cares what they think anyway—but I cannot physically stop that noise from falling out of my mouth, or excise that part of me which has refused to outgrow the childish delusion that other people are locks to which I am an insufficient key.
That voice, that terrified, too-eager voice, that’s the voice Kayla speaks with throughout Eighth Grade, whether she’s giving advice to an audience of no one or offering congratulations that go unheard. It’s at its peak when she does what everyone tells you to do—just put yourself out there!—and tries to strike up a conversation with popular girls Kennedy and Steph, only to have her overly enthusiastic compliments disintegrate in a vacuum of apathetic awkwardness. After, standing alone in the hallway, she smiles and nods, trying to hold on to the victory of her attempt, but soon you can see she’s trying not to cry. I recognize that, too. If you’re shy, like I am, like Kayla is, it can feel like you live in the gap between selves, caught permanently in the humiliation of being unable to talk yourself out of being the way that you are.
It’s a lonely way to be, lonelier still because this kind of isolation doesn’t lend itself to easy storytelling. We like our outsiders fashionably alienated, with a righteous snarl and precociously cool taste in music. Kayla is nice, and well-behaved, and ordinary. She doesn’t wear combat boots or arrestingly mismatched thrift-store outfits; she has no sarcastic wit or cynical insight. She likes Harry Potter and Spongebob and Rick and Morty; her phone wakes her up with a pop song earnestly proclaiming, “Welcome to a brand new day!”
She is deeply uncool, not just by the standards of her classmates, but by the standards of the teenage-nostalgia–industrial complex—she’s not the kind of outsider it flatters a viewer to identify with. Which is precisely why it’s so refreshing to see her at the center of a story; there’s a welcome generosity in acknowledging that the particular cultural touchstones of your teen angst have no bearing on the contours and scope of its landscape, that some of us turned up the volume on Britney and Avril with all the depth of feeling others brought to Nirvana or Bikini Kill. And by viewing Kayla’s story as a story worth telling, the movie embodies that other parental truth that is so hard for middle schoolers, especially when they’re shy, especially when they’re lonely, to believe: that you don’t need to be clever or listen to cool bands or wear the right clothes—by anyone’s standards of clever or cool or right—to be someone worth spending time with.
ii. in my head i do everything right
When Bo Burnham said, “The internet means a lot to me, and no one is talking about it correctly,” I fucking felt that. At less than three years older than Burnham, I’m not quite a digital native, but I’m young enough to have spent more than half my lifespan online. For nearly as long, I’ve been watching media try and fail to tell stories about what that means. I don’t just mean the clunkiness of CBS procedurals explaining what it means to go viral, or the inaccuracy of key details (overly capitalized messages, “posted a blog”). I mean that in fiction the internet is either too big or too small, a dramatic device for furthering the plot or an occasional diversion in characters’ lives—depictions that reflect certain uses of the internet, but say nothing about being online, where online names a state of being as much as a place you go.
2018 was the first year I felt like I found stories about the internet that captured the internet I knew—not the specifics of popular apps or authentic slang, but how it feels, what it means, to be online. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two great pieces of art this year about being online—Eighth Grade and the admirably introspective second season of American Vandal—were both about teenagers. The internet offers a useful visual framework for talking about adolescence because the internet concretizes adolescent thinking patterns. The endless scroll of likes and selfies turns life into a lunch period purgatory of anxious peacocking where the social hierarchy has become numerically verified. We perform for the approval of our peers, polishing unreal selves for that dopamine hit of another little heart, choosing what looks good over what feels true.
Through this lens, much of the digital minutiae of Kayla’s life take on a depressing cast. She follows a YouTube make-up tutorial before posting a “just woke up like this” selfie; she replies on Instagram to the classmates she’s too shy to talk to at school and stares enviously at photographic evidence of Kennedy’s social superiority. She spends hours recording videos no one will watch in a doomed attempt to chase influencer fame, giving advice she can’t follow because her true self isn’t saleable in the attention economy. She tries to perform the person the imagined public wants: cheerful yet serious, relatable yet wise, effortlessly put together.
In a space that lets you choose how you present yourself to the world, there can be a pressure to sculpt a self shining and unblemished: cooler, happier, more emotionally stable and aesthetically coordinated. But for me, the appeal has always resided simply in the possibility of choosing—of knowing with certainty that I can choose. If adolescence is a time for trying on different selves you might want to be, and if humiliation is a reckoning with how far you are from being able to play those selves convincingly, the internet offers relief from this loop: a place you can try out a self wholly within your control.
If you are shy, if you live stranded in the gap between selves, this control can feel like magic. On the internet, as in your imagination, your body cannot betray you: no jumps to the top of your vocal range, no blushing or fidgeting or wondering if your eyes are giving you away. You can select your words not to seem other than what you are but to reflect, finally, your actual intention. You can close the gap by removing the constraints—the complications of physical actuality, the unknowability of other people—that keep it open.
And you can do this all alone. The word feedback appears frequently in discussions about social media, particularly when considering the generation growing up in its shadow. I don’t want to diminish the very real concerns about how that unceasing gaze might shape young lives. But one paradox of the internet is that as a shy kid, what I loved about going online was the way it removed feedback. It freed you from the terror of awkward silences and confused faces after jokes that didn’t land. Look at Kayla’s failed conversation with the popular girls: yes, they’re looking at their phones, but the real nightmare of the interaction comes from their fully analog disdain.
Eighth Grade is refreshingly undidactic about the role the internet plays in Kayla’s life. As she approaches Kennedy’s pool party with gritted teeth, we hear a video in which she delineates a fantasy of how the day might go, telling an imaginary story about a girl she invited to a party who wowed everyone with heretofore unknown reserves of coolness. It’s a tragicomic combination of hopeful and deluded, especially when, in real life, Kayla heads straight to the bathroom to hyperventilate alone. Ominous synths play as she walks into the fray (girls in bikinis, friends laughing together, a boy doing that thing with his eyelids) clutching the middle of her green one-piece. Her gift, a card game—if you didn’t wince immediately I don’t know how to explain this one to you—fails to impress, a fresh indication that no one wants what she has to offer.
But the party isn’t a disaster. She meets Gabe, Kennedy’s motor-mouthed cousin with whom she later makes a real connection. And in a moment of hormonally fueled bravery, she follows a cute boy back to the action and takes the mic on karaoke. We don’t hear her sing; instead we hear another video, this one extolling the virtues of confidence. The other kids remain neither amazed nor scornful, but it feels like a victory because for a moment the Kayla of the videos, the Kayla in her head, merges with the Kayla who lives in the world. Her videos let her imagine her way into doing what she could never do, and gave her space to celebrate when she did.
Afterwards we see her alone, practicing casual, mundane conversation in her bedroom, intercut with shots of her trying to find the perfect selfie angle on her lawn. One of these actions is private, the other technically public, but they come from the same root her videos do: she’s rehearsing for the person she wants to be. Eighth Grade is the first movie I’ve seen that understands this aspect of what being online has meant to me: on the internet, the most important person you’re performing for is always yourself.
iii. when all you wanted was to be wanted
He was a senior, with acne-scarred cheeks and beautiful clear eyes. He had dark oily hair that brushed his jawline and the kind of fuzzy mystique I would retroactively understand as common to people who do a lot of drugs. We found each other in the genial, liminal space of downtime during rehearsals for the musical. I have tried and failed to recall a single thing we talked about that spring, but I know I thrilled to see his screen name on my buddy list. He spoke sweetly to me, I think.
I was 15. I didn’t yet know about the drugs or his dead mother; I didn’t know he talked about me to girls who were mooning helplessly over him, or that this was a pattern of his. I knew that he was a boy with beautiful eyes, and that therefore he had the shape of something I wanted, or was supposed to want. I didn’t know yet there was a difference. I knew I liked talking to him, liked being selected for affectionate interest by someone older and male. I knew he had beautiful eyes and a shy smile and a power I’d been craving: when he looked at me, I became someone worth looking at.
Yet when he asked me if I wanted to hang out some Saturday, I balked. I was scared, and embarrassed to be scared. I didn’t think I am afraid this boy could rape me, but I was afraid of a turn in expectations that I would be neither ready to meet nor able to deflect. I didn’t know what the rules were, for a girl alone with a senior boy; a familiar anxiety with heightened stakes. Finally, I told him my mother had said I couldn’t go, although in fact she had only done so once she realized I wanted her to say no, and I felt embarrassed and relieved in my childishness.
I was so happy when I walked into the senior project theater showcase to find him saving me a seat: happy I hadn’t been forgotten for being young, happy to spend an hour sitting next to a boy who had been nice to me. Then he began touching my hand. Not holding: caressing, stroking, his skin slid against mine. I was caught in a body frozen and feverish with desire and terror and shame. As soon as the lights went up I raced from the auditorium and found my way to a secluded stairwell where I collapsed to the floor and sobbed.
I don’t know that every girl has a story like this or worse, but enough do that it’s no surprise variations on this scene recur in narratives of female adolescence; it’s half the reason Taylor Swift is a millionaire. The version in Eighth Grade goes like this. After pool party karaoke, Kayla has a delightful day shadowing a genuinely kind high schooler named Olivia; riding the momentum of personal transformation, she calls Olivia and is rewarded with an invitation to hang out at the mall with some friends.
At the food court, much of the conversation we hear features the two boys trying to argue with the two girls that recent experiences with boys are being unfairly characterized as creepy. Kayla doesn’t notice this; she nods along in dazzled silence, volunteering to speak only once. After the group half-jokingly calls one boy, Riley, quiet, Kayla confidently confides in him: “I used to be quiet, too.”
Later, Riley drives her and Olivia home. Depending on what you bring to it, the scene might turn sinister as soon as Riley maneuvers to drop Olivia off first; perhaps it turns once Kayla is alone in the car with him. Certainly a dark question poses itself when he pulls the car over and climbs into the backseat. Unlike the pool party, with its comically hyperbolic score, this scene has no music; the dread builds organically. The fear is familiar; the stakes are unspeakable. Riley flatters her, goads her into talking about her sexual experience, takes off his shirt; Kayla stares into her lap, like if she doesn’t look it won’t be real. When he tries to manipulate her into taking her shirt off, too, she deflects; he tries to tease her into changing her mind, until she finally says, loud and clear, “No!”—followed immediately, by: “Sorry.”
Riley stops after that. He warns her, “you’re gonna have your first hook-up with some asshole at a party, and you’re not gonna be good at it, and he’s gonna tell all his friends about it, and you’re gonna get made fun of and feel like shit.” The exact fears that already govern so much of her life—you won’t know what to do and people will laugh at you for not knowing—transposed to a mortifyingly specific context. In a final devastating note, she asks, “Please don’t tell Olivia about this.”
What happens to Kayla is worse than what happened to me. But the way she propels herself out of the car and into her bedroom in mute fury and shame, the way she sits on the floor of her bedroom pushing away her father’s concerns, locked in the aftermath of terror and misery, I watched that and I thought of that day in the theater for the first time in years. Because there are ways of telling both stories in which nothing happened: he never even touched her; all he did was hold my hand. Those versions are poisonous. Kayla was manipulated and exposed; I know as an adult there are ways you only touch someone you want to fuck. But that’s the story that rang in my head when I was crying in the stairwell; I couldn’t know his mind but I knew my own. I knew I had lived for months in a state of wanting something to happen; I knew I had wanted to be a person things happened to. I was destabilized not just by what had happened, but the sudden keen awareness that there were many selves open to me now, and it would be harder than I’d understood to know which ones I was ready to be.
Kayla is destabilized, too. She passes time dazed and numb; she records a farewell video for her channel where she admits, “I’m probably not, like, the best person to give advice, because I like giving advice and like talking about doing stuff, but I can’t really actually do that stuff.” The big open world of possibility she’d just started to envision for herself shutters closed, toppled by a boy who probably won’t think of her in a month; the gap between selves has never seemed more impossible to cross.
iv. i must confess i still believe
At her low point, shaken and unable to cope with the optimistic video from her past self discovered in a time capsule, Kayla asks her father’s help in burning the capsule’s contents, or, as she puts it, “Just sort of my hopes and dreams.” She asks him one of the most heartbreaking questions a parent can hear: “Do I make you sad?” In a beautiful and moving speech, he tells her that he was scared, after her mother left, but felt better seeing how naturally Kayla learned the important things of the world: how to share, how to be kind. “You make me brave,” he tells her, “and if you could just see yourself how I see you, which is how you are…you wouldn’t be scared either.” Kayla jumps into his lap for a long hug.
She says nothing, and the movie doesn’t offer a definitive reason why his words reached her now, when his earlier attempts to cheer her up were met with revulsion. Maybe they don’t reach her; maybe she’s just a sad kid who needs a hug from her dad. Maybe it was the act of voicing her deepest fear that provided relief, more than anything he said in response. Maybe it strikes her as miraculous that however poor a role model she was for her nonexistent followers, there was one person whose life she was improving all along.
Maybe it had never occurred to her that he got scared, too.
The great fantasy of adolescence—that you will wake up one morning having outgrown your past self—never comes true, but neither do its agonies last forever. You begin to learn, piecemeal, the truth about other people: that they also feel scared and uncertain and embarrassed and weird; that they are kind and cruel for reasons wholly their own; that they, like you, operate under the logic of their own internal tumult, which you can almost never see. And this in turn lets you see more clearly yourself, or your two selves, the relationship between the girl in the mirror and the girl in your head. Playwright Lisa Kron once said: “If you’re going to become a different person, you have to not know, you have to step out of the person that you know and become someone that you cannot control, and that is humiliating.” The way forward is not a shining and certain march, but a painful fumbling toward the horizon of your future self. Or, as Kayla puts it: “You can’t be brave unless you’re scared.”
Whatever lessons she has or hasn’t learned, Kayla rallies for two final victories. She responds to Gabe’s Instagram DMs long enough for the two of them to hang out IRL. There’s no magical spark of recognition between lonesome souls, her clumsy tongue unlocking itself in the presence of her kin. There are chicken nuggets—with every kind of sauce!—and lightsaber silverware, and endearingly fake self-deprecation about an archery camp award left “accidentally” on the table, and a long silence followed by the question, “Do you believe in God?” Gabe is nervous about being weird; Kayla is nervous about being quiet. “This is a good conversation, don’t you think?” Gabe says, and Kayla says, “Yeah. We’re doing some good talking.” It is not and they are not. They are weird, and quiet, and awkward, and uncertain; they are unceasingly themselves. When Kayla’s dad picks her up, she says, sincerely, “It was a lot of fun.”
And at graduation, she delivers a disjointed, awkward, righteous outburst at Kennedy and Steph—“You’re always mean to me, and I’m always nice to you, and being mean isn’t nice!” She stutters and stumbles, looks at the floor, walks off mid-sentence; they remain dismissive and confused. But after, she smiles with a private, proud joy—not because she finally figured out how to make them like her, but because, for a moment, she closed the gap. She said what she wanted to say.