There are parts of Eighth Grade that are harder to watch than the bloodiest, goriest, final battle scene of any action movie. I cannot even remember how many times I wanted to disappear into my seat in the theater because the moment on the screen was all too real. But that wasn’t just my reaction, it was everyone else’s, too. It’s impossible for someone not to relate to Kayla (Elise Fisher) because this is not just a story written about an eighth grader, it’s written about all of us trying to find our place in the world.
In a video essay from late last year, Thomas Flight explains how writer/director Bo Burnham drew inspiration from real people when creating Kayla’s story.
As someone who grew to fame thanks to the internet, Burnham had the experience with which to write a film about someone going viral. However, he chose to focus on the average person and the feeling of wanting to belong. In his video, Flight refers to an interview with Burnham, who describes how he would transcribe YouTube videos from channels with very few views. This technique helped him not only write the script for Kayla’s own videos but also understand their perspective. It’s why all of us can relate to Eighth Grade even though not all of us had to suffer the reality of being a girl in middle school during the digital age.
Flight emphasizes how essential Kayla’s YouTube videos are for the film. They break the fourth wall and give Kayla a chance to address the audience directly. She talks about self-confidence, self-positivity, and self-improvement. Flight shows clips of real people posting their advice out on the internet. These clips may have been the inspiration for Kayla’s videos since they discuss similar themes. These people and Kayla share their vulnerability with the intention of helping strangers. However, Kayla does not always follow the positive lessons she teaches. This discrepancy shows the purpose of her videos may not be intended to help others but rather herself. Her YouTube videos become a coping strategy for feeling like she doesn’t belong with her peers. All of these positive ideas discussed in her videos could be a form of self-affirmation.
When Kayla records her videos, she sees herself while she talks about these positive messages. Because she is essentially talking to herself, it becomes clear that these videos are a form of self-affirmation in disguise. Kayla already uses self-affirmation techniques, most notably in the way she has framed her bathroom mirror with positive messages on Post-its. Looking in the mirror, she only sees her reflection and these positive messages. This could help her to solve any cognitive dissonance about herself. Both her mirror and her videos are expressing feelings that Kayla wants to follow but doesn’t. By using self-affirmations, Kayla is trying to convince herself that she can practice the ideas she believes in.
Even though Flight explains his reasoning for only including clips of adult YouTubers in his video, it is hard to ignore the similarities between what they say and what Kayla says in her videos. The self-affirmation techniques used by Kayla are Burnham’s way of giving his own advice to those unpopular YouTubers. He tells them to listen to the positive messages they preach. This further illustrates that the story of wanting to fit in is not exclusively for middle school girls. No one is immune to feeling self-doubt or confusion about their place in the world. What Burnham and Eighth Grade tell us is it’s okay to want to fit in, but as Kayla realizes for herself, it’s okay to not be the coolest girl in the world.