Around the same time that screens began to dominate our lives, a Sorkinesque trope emerged in entertainment: the gadget-glued teen who is cordoned off from a film’s narrative arc by a single set of earpods. Entire romances, violent struggles, and natural disasters have occurred in the background as a young person taps away on a screen, impervious to reality. Negasonic Teenage Warhead needs to finish sending a quick tweet before assisting Deadpool in battle. The popular high school girl in the latest Jumanji remake texts while jogging. And even Teen Groot can’t bother to unroot himself from his gamer’s chamber to give Peter Quill the time of day. Traditionally, these characters have existed as comedic relief to adult audiences who felt as though they lived in entirely separate worlds from their children. The subtext was always: Those damn kids are wasting away on their devices as real life passes them by.
Only recently have filmmakers begun to consider the screen-stuck teen’s interior life with a little more nuance. Eighth Grade, a new comedy about growing up with social media, is a refreshingly thoughtful exploration of adolescent online and offline identity, and how the two intersect, or don’t. It tells the story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an awkward eighth grader who lives in the suburbs with her single dad. At home, she’s a vlogger who specializes in self-help tips. At school, she struggles to speak in complete sentences to her more confident peers. As the next stage of her life approaches, she navigates the standard teenage hurdles—independence, sexuality, friendship—through the filter of platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and especially YouTube.
The movie’s premise has the potential to devolve into a cautionary “Teens Eat Tide Pods!” tale you might see on the nightly news. Instead it ventures unblinkingly, with a perspective that only a former YouTube star might be able to provide, into the vast, intimidating social media infrastructure that teens have no choice but to navigate today. In Kayla’s world, there’s always a low, horrifying hum of information-overload-induced social anxiety. But even among all the cartoonish face filters and energetic “How to Give a Blow Job” YouTube tutorials, one simple moment of eye contact with the token high school hunk can still reverberate loudly. As the movie’s writer and director, Bo Burnham, describes the film, “It’s a story about, hopefully, how intense small things are.”
Maybe we’ve had to wait this long for a movie that gives the device-obsessed teen a fair shake because it takes one to know one. Burnham launched his career on YouTube in 2006 with dirty songs about math and Santa. He soon went viral and has since enjoyed a solid career in digital media, releasing an EP with Comedy Central Records in 2008, which he followed with a handful of comedy specials and an MTV series about a high schooler who wants to become an online star. (He’s also directed comedy specials for Jerrod Carmichael and Chris Rock and had a minor role as a young comedian in The Big Sick.) To this day, you can watch old videos of him rapping on his YouTube channel, which has 1.4 million subscribers. (Sample: “I’m a gay sea otter / I blow other dudes out of the water.”) In his debut film, Eighth Grade, his own empathetic perspective of digital identity informs Kayla’s journey and contextualizes what’s often labeled as narcissistic behavior. “It’s a bummer to have to think about yourself all the time, and you’re forced to think about yourself all the time,” Burnham said on a recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast. “Not because of their own doing. They’re 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds. Of course if we give them all these apps and all this shit, they’re going to use it this way.”
Eighth Grade follows a handful of films that have tried to make some sense out of our modern-day digital existence. It’s a tricky genre, given that social media transforms rapidly, and that even the most cerebral pre-Snapchat creators tend to distrust what they don’t understand. Films like The Circle, last year’s Tom Hanks–and–Emma Watson–starring techno-thriller, often forgo the personal to focus on larger, more systematic fears. In the film, an eager woman named Mae accepts a job from a Facebook-Google hybrid called the Circle, which rewards employees with benefits and promotions for functioning as ever-present online ambassadors. She’s at once overwhelmed by the pressure to be digitally forthcoming and shamed for desiring even a smidgen of privacy—an existence that plenty of us can relate to. But even as Mae grapples with the need to maintain a life worth watching, her story becomes an exaggerated parable for all that’s wrong in the modern-day attention economy. She signs up to be a guinea pig for a 24/7 live-streaming program, which ruins the lives of her family and friends and threatens basic principles of American criminal justice. And eventually she’s tasked with confronting and dismantling the awesome power of a menacing corporation she works for. Meanwhile, the downsides of excessive social media usage in the real world are poor mental health and hand cramps.
A movie like Ingrid Goes West comes much closer to exploring the often pained person-to-platform dynamic. Its protagonist, Ingrid Thorburn, is a poorly adjusted 20-something so obsessed by the mirage of one L.A. influencer’s feed that she uses an inheritance from her recently deceased mother to fund a new, curated life of her own in Venice. But here, too, the platform’s portrayal captures an experience foreign to the average social media user. We have all been compelled to seek out aesthetically pleasing photo ops in the name of Good Content, but very few of us are literally emptying a manila folder full of cash as a way to earn human validation. Based on Ingrid’s disturbing downward spiral, which ends in a suicide attempt and even more followers, the film seems to suggest we should log off altogether. But as the conversation around a recent campaign to boycott Facebook recently proved, opting out of an online destination that’s become vital to functioning in society is largely unrealistic. And even though companies could definitely do more to ensure the health of their customers, social platforms can still be rewarding, joyful places to connect with our loved ones.
Snubbing online platforms isn’t a viable option these days—especially not for a teenager who would like to connect with her peers—and Eighth Grade never once appears to portray Kayla’s use of social media as a personal failing. Kayla might not be literally chained to her smartphone or mandated to post “I woke up like this” selfies, but she was brought up in a world whose entire social infrastructure is built upon selfies, status updates, and urgent red message bubbles. The movie is sprinkled, Salt Bae style, with references to memes to reinforce the way her classmates derive social currency from the internet. At school gatherings, one kid uses every moment of silence as an opportunity to quote the famous LeBron James Vine. The popular girl hosting a cool-kids party knows how to do the backpack kid dance. Kayla’s old videos are stored on a memory drive in the shape of meme king SpongeBob SquarePants. Ultimately, her most rewarding IRL interaction is rooted in a Rick and Morty inside joke about that infamous, ultra-viral McDonald’s Szechuan sauce. Social media might be isolating, but for Kayla to completely exclude herself from it altogether would estrange her from her fellow teens even more.
That Eighth Grade is bookended by Kayla’s self-help-themed recordings is a tribute to the digital medium she’s learned to work within. The unflinching gaze of the webcam on Kayla’s rambling, um-filled soliloquies ultimately forces the audience to confront the medium as most young people see it: an outlet for self-expression; a place where they can find a voice, an audience, a community all their own. So frequently, critics of social media argue that children are wasting away on their screens when, in fact, they’re using them as tools to forge their own unique culture. What’s happening behind the lulling glow of the checked-out teen’s smartphone isn’t just mindless tapping, but a social exchange like any other. Burnham, a teen YouTuber turned filmmaker, knows that best.