Ten years ago, when 17-year-old Bo Burnham posted what would end up becoming his most-viewed video, “i’m bo yo.”, to his YouTube channel, 13 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute. Since then, the internet has become a far bigger part of our lives — by 2015, the rate of YouTube uploads had increased to 400 hours per minute.
Bo’s 2018 feature-length comedy, Eighth Grade, exists in the 400 hours world, not the 13 hours world we might be a little nostalgic for. Bo’s understanding of what it’s like to be a kid today is what makes Eighth Grade such a treat to watch.
The movie is about Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a young girl who makes YouTube videos that no one watches, trying to survive her last week of middle school. Despite its synth-heavy score and comedy billing, Eighth Grade is a viscerally intense movie — it’s about what it feels like to be a kid in 2018, not what we remember childhood as being like.
Bo told The Diamondback that he didn’t want to treat Eighth Grade as a little kid’s story. Kayla feels like she’s a regular person experiencing the world, not just a little kid.
Bo talked about the experience of being in a high-stakes situation without any idea of what you should do and feeling like you’re drowning — the kind of situations middle schoolers frequently find themselves in. For Kayla, this was a pool party she was invited to.
It may seem like he’s overselling it, but Elsie — who started filming for the movie right after she’d finished eighth grade herself — told The Diamondback its depiction of middle school life was “very right,” even if she hadn’t gone through exactly what Kayla had.
At its heart, Eighth Grade is about how social media has changed adolescence. Bo argues the internet doesn’t create any new emotions — it just amplifies all the feelings of young adulthood “beyond the point which we were designed to handle.” But the social media landscape is changing so fast (a topic discussed within the movie) that it seems like you’d need to be around Bo’s age to “get” Eighth Grade.
Bo said he started writing the script in 2014, and even though some updates were made — the kids communicated over Facebook until Elsie told him no one uses Facebook anymore — some parts are already outdated. (When was the last time you heard someone reference the LeBron James vine?)
And the parts that are current don’t resonate with everyone. After the screening of this movie I attended, an older man in front of me leaned over to the man sitting next to him and asked, “Why does Kayla say ‘Gucci!’ all the time?” in reference to the send-off she uses for all her YouTube videos.
Elsie explained that on set, “being the awkward person I am, I would end conversations with ‘Gucci!’ And then Bo started doing it to embarrass me, and then on set it just kinda caught on with the crew, and they’d be like, ‘Is this shot gucci?'” When they were deciding on what Kayla’s send-off would be, Bo insisted she go with that.
Bo said a lot of people asked him the same question as the older man in the screening, and the real reason Kayla says ‘Gucci!’ all the time is that she’s a kid, and kids like saying things even after they stop being funny. As someone who grew up surrounded by memes, I understand that; those two men did not.
Bo knew exactly what he was doing when he made Eighth Grade. He didn’t want the audience to look back with rose-colored glasses on their eighth grade experiences — he wanted to show that the anxieties of middle school never really leave you. But by tying these anxieties to social media, that central message is harder to grasp for those who don’t (and can’t) understand how different it is to grow up in this era.
The best scenes in Eighth Grade are not centered on the experience of social media, but on the feelings and experiences we all had growing up. Thankfully, Bo is more than able to make us laugh (Kayla tells her father he’s making weird faces but the camera never leaves Kayla’s face, leaving it up to the audience to imagine what he’s doing) and cry (Kayla’s father tells her that if she could see herself as he sees her, she would know she’s loved) without getting bogged down by his vision too much.