Eighth Grade and the Genius of Bo Burnham

Bo Burnham is one of my all-time favorite comedians. A friend of mine in college played me some of his songs and I was instantly hooked. I couldn’t believe someone just under a year older than me could make such smart and relatable comedy. He completely rock my world.

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I was lucky enough to go to see him during his last tour that ended up being his special on Netflix, Make Happy. You could tell that this special was probably the most personal he’d ever been with audience. There were lots of themes of loneliness and anxiety throughout the show that really came ahead in the final act. Between the jokes and self-deprecation, he’s asking his audience “are you happy?”.

Going from that stand-up special to his movie, Eighth Grade, was so smart. This is his directorial debut, as well as serving as the writer. In interviews, he talks about how he wanted to make a movie about the social media age, and what better than to focus in on the prime demographic: middle school.

Middle schoolers can be pretty horrific and just plain mean for no reason at all. And the thing about this time in your life, is that you think that everything is the end of the world if you’re not invited to someone party, or you embarrass yourself in class. No one is going to remember it a few months, or even a few weeks after. Hormones are rolling and every little thing becomes a life or death situation.

I had a fine time in middle school—wasn’t incredible, but I also wasn’t tortured. Sixth grade was the first time my close friendships were really put to the test, being in this strange environment with so many new kids from all the different elementary schools, pooling into the one middle school. Seventh grade was the year of the mitzvahs! Every weekend there was a different bar or bat mitzvah with kids dressing and acting like they were at a high school dance. Once eighth grade came along, all I wanted was to move on and into the new world that was high school.

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The character of Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher, is a shy, insecure, and anxiety ridden thirteen year old that just doesn’t fit in at school. She uses her YouTube channel as a way to seem more confident and outgoing, despite the fact that no one is even watching her videos. Her dad is a single father that thinks she is the greatest thing on the planet, but of course at that age, the last thing you want to be do is talk to your parents, let alone hang out with them. She’s maneuvering her way through the last few weeks of eighth grade, getting ready to put that chapter of her life behind her and focus on what’s ahead.

This movie was a gut punch. It made me feel all the feelings that I thought I had repressed years ago. As I was watching, I was noticing that so many of the emotions Kayla was wrestling with, I still deal with currently. There’s a scene at a pool party where Kayla goes to change into her bathing suit while trying to calm herself down before being around all of her classmates in such a casual setting. I still have times where I’m going into an unfamiliar or nerve-racking situation and I have to take a minute to pull myself together. To calm those nerves and push the anxiety sitting on my chest down into my belly.

By getting a lot of the kid actors from the actual middle school that they shot at was such a smart and effective choice. The entire movie was so authentic and grounded in what it truly means to be a young adolescent. I think that anyone watching this movie can find something that they related to in this story. Eighth Grade is a really important movie. I’m so proud of Bo for doing such a careful and incredible job telling this story and for getting the praise he deserves.

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