Despite what box office numbers show, a film can make an impact without having a hero, archvillain, or CGI. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is one of these movies. The piece drops its audience into the everyday life of a middle schooler. Viewing preteen experiences in modern times is revelatory despite the unappealing concept of reliving adolescence.
Set in a nondescript New York town in 2017, Eighth Grade is an indie movie brought to life by a cast of unknowns. The primary star is Elsie Fisher, who plays quiet protagonist Kayla Day. Kayla is a lonely eighth grader with a YouTube channel and a supportive single dad (Josh Hamilton). She is like most kids at that age: trying to fit in with a complex world.
Fisher is phenomenal. She does not adhere to a John Hughes trope. Kayla is not a four-eyed nerd, athlete, or drama student. She is just a kid. Fisher brings the solitude of the role out well as a completely natural actor.
Her greatest sequence comes as she unravels an anxiety attack at a party. It is an event that can enhance her social chances, yet she is overwhelmed and needs a moment in the bathroom before she can face a Mean Girls clique. Fisher plays the attack well and serves notice that she is an actor who is performing beyond her years.
Even though Josh Hamilton logs a good turn as father Mark Day, the most important dynamic of the film is Bo Burnham. The director did an impressive job of depicting what it is like to be a modern American kid. The story is devoid of excess and every scene is well-crafted. The facts of being a young person with experiences that mean nothing and everything is a story everyone can appreciate no matter their age.
Despite not having a driving story arc, Eighth Grade fascinates. The immersion into Generation Z is wonderful. Experiencing crushes, social interaction, going to school, and hanging out in a bedroom in 2017 is a constantly interesting story. Bo Burnham never dwells on these points for long. There is always another everyday occurrence around the corner that moves the story along.
Generation Z In Movies
Eighth Grade is not the first of its kind. Generation Z’s challenges have begun to pop up in contemporary art. With filmmakers becoming parents, the realities of Gen Z and modern parenting are entering into TV and movies. Cobra Kai, Booksmart, and Blockers all incorporate these realities on some level.
Films with these stories stand in incredible contrast to my own childhood. One notable movie to depict my own era is Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated Catholic school drama is set in 2002 and 2003. The setting is only 14 years different from Eighth Grade, but through these movies it is apparent that there are greater differences between Generation Z and Millennials than cell phones models.
Learning About Gen Z In Eighth Grade
As a 33-year-old Millennial, I feel like I dropped into Eighth Grade as someone from the Roaring Twenties. Coming into your own as a young adult is hard enough without social media and a YouTube channel. Scenes like the anxiety attack are common ground, yet Gen Z and Millennial are worlds apart.
The harshest revelation in Eighth Grade is an active shooter drill with police and volunteers from the middle school drama club. Columbine happened in 1999. I was in seventh grade. That seemed like a one-off horror. Now it is a daily occurrence that young children have been accustomed to for their whole lives. In Eighth Grade, Kayla and her crush Aiden sit under a desk. Instead of the insanity of training for a massacre, they talk about dirty pictures and how they would stop a shooting.
Eighth Grade separates age groups beyond gun violence. Kayla hangs with high schoolers in a mall. She looks up to them as being cool, yet Kayla learns there is a huge difference between high school and middle school. In addition to an uncomfortable situation with an older boy, they discuss how Kayla came of age during SnapChat and that she is much different than they are. Even Gen Z subdivides itself.
This is in concert with a mom talking to her daughter about Facebook. The daughter scoffs at her mother. No one uses Facebook anymore. I grew up without the Internet and AIM was an early social tool. Facebook was a big deal when it came to my college campus in 2005, but adding Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat into the fold for someone six years younger is daunting.
Every generation tends to look down at its successors with some type of stereotypical disdain. The Greatest Generation fought World War II. Boomers experienced Vietnam and Watergate. Millennials came of age during the wars after 9/11 and a global depression. None are better or worse and Generation Z is set to experience its own challenges. Eighth Grade even presents these difficulties through the lens of Mark Day, who is learning how to be a parent of a Gen Z child.
Eighth Grade shows how different Gen Z is from Millennials and each preceding generation. Bo Burnham never passes judgement or goes for a Breakfast Club lesson about how we all become our parents. Instead, he presents the situation as is, serving a cautionary note on dismissing a group with its own set of challenges.