Do you remember what middle school was like? Or maybe you’re right now in the painful throes of it. For me, eighth grade was 15 years ago. It both feels like forever ago, but also like the awkwardness and embarrassment and true angst I experienced is buried just underneath the surface of my adult life. Basically, it doesn’t take much to make me feel small and insecure and unwanted like I did in middle school.
Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” taps into that visceral repulsion I have for middle school and executes a film that I think might be my favorite of the year so far. Even though the film follows a “modern” middle schooler who makes vlogs for her YouTube channel and is obsessively plugged in to social media, I saw so much of myself in Kayla Day, our not-as-quiet-as-everyone-assumes eighth grade heroine.
Perhaps I wasn’t endlessly scrolling Instagram when I was in middle school or on Snapchat by fifth grade (!) like our main character, but I was still hyper aware of my peers’ judgments, desperately wanting to connect with the people around me, and feeling immensely out of place. I was terrified at the prospect of high school. I both hoped it would change my social life for the better and bring me the friends I so desperately longed for, but also afraid of what it meant: growing up. So all in all, Kayla was a character I deeply identified with, even though I cringed at the added complicated layers of growing up in a technology-obsessed world.
I didn’t start making YouTube vlogs until I was 21, but in many ways our approach to video-making is very similar. Kayla gives advice in her vlogs, usually pertaining to things that are going on in her life, and many times from the perspective of advice she needs. If you’ve followed my YouTube channel for a while, you know I’ve been pretty open about its purpose. That it was started as a love letter to my 13 year-old self. It’s all the advice I could have used while growing up, and my hope is that I can help someone like me with my videos.
But I’d be lying if I said that in the last 7 years of making videos, I hadn’t made any videos giving advice that I actually needed in that moment. That by making a video and meditating on the ideas and advice I give, I was, in part, trying to help myself through a personal struggle. Sometimes I speak with confidence as if I’m on the other side of the problem like Kayla does when she’s nervous about going to popular girl Kennedy’s pool party, and other times I embrace authenticity and admit I don’t have an answer and ask for supplemental advice from my audience (though this transparency really only came with time and maturity).
I do know that making videos has helped me grow as a person. And the advice I give others has influenced my life as well over the last several years. As Kayla looks back on her 6th grade self via video and then makes a video of her 8th grade self for her 18 year old self to view in the future, I too have made weekly video markers in my life for the last 7 years which I review with mixed feelings. Sometimes embarrassment, sometimes tears, sometimes laughs at my awkwardness or silliness. But always love.
That’s the conclusion Kayla seems to draw by the end of the film, and it’s certainly the one I’ve found to be true in my own life. Growing up is weird and awkward and scary and confusing. Many times we feel like burning all our hopes and dreams in a bonfire because everything seems pointless and the world is out to get us. But in reality, if we could just give ourselves a little more love — perhaps see ourselves the way our family or friends see us, everything might not seem so bleak. I think in many ways, Kayla is wise beyond her age, because it took me much longer to embrace that self-love. I hope for her sake and that of many other 13 year old girls, she’s able to hold on to it.