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If you hated middle school (who didn’t?), you’ll appreciate ‘Eighth Grade’

Emily Quigley,

If you’ve ever wanted to relive the horror of your middle school days, look no further than Bo Burnham’s directorial debut film “Eighth Grade.”

Following Kayla during her last days of middle school, we experience her day-to-day struggles with loneliness and crushes. At school, she’s quiet and shy, but at home, she’s a lovable teen who yells at her dad for being lame and makes inspirational “how-to” YouTube videos. Everything she talks about online, she seems to lack in person. Her social media accounts, Snapchat especially, allow her to build an  ideal life, one where she wakes up with flawless skin and makeup on.

This film is incredibly painful because the story is told well and hits so close to home that at certain points it will have you in tears, or make you cringe in your seat.

The use of social media time-stamps it a little bit. A non-millennial or even a teen who doesn’t use social media may not feel as close to it, but at this point, there’s no way to make a coming-of-age film set in this generation without giving Snapchat and Instagram a lead role.

Social media has definitely changed the middle school experience — mostly for the worse, the film argues — making it harder for kids to connect with one another or making it too easy to do so. Every generation has mean girls and guys who are hormonal jerks, but they don’t all have Snapchat stories and Instagram posts to heighten the pain.

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The manner in which Burnham uses Kayla’s reliance on social media to build character is smart. The film devotes a lot of time to scenes without dialogue, focused on just watching Kayla scroll through her accounts, showing us the kind of content she encounters. It could have felt either boring or excessive, but the fact that those moments helped push the story forward all while giving us insight into her character show that Burnham really understands the medium he’s working with and the story he is trying to tell.

In the film, there are definitely more than a few awkward, uncomfortable moments, but thankfully none that goes too far.

Kayla frequently worries about having no friends and girls not liking her at school, but it’s not because everyone is talking about her. It’s the fact that no one is talking about her that worries her. But as she finds out, being noticed or in the spotlight is not as desirable as it may appear.

Kayla’s YouTube videos often serve as her own internal monologues. The voice-over from those is often intercut with scenes where we see her either doing the opposite or following through on the advice she’s giving in the video. They signal her growth in the story without having her just say it all through exposition.

The things you experience in middle school often mark you for life, but they don’t define you, as Kayla learns. In that experience, there’s hope that the future will be better.

“Eighth Grade” premiered at South by Southwest on March 9. It will screen again at 8 p.m. March 16 at the Alamo South Lamar.

Grade: B+