Bo Burnham’s film Eighth Grade begins with its 13-year-old protagonist, Kayla (Elsie Fisher), recording a video for her YouTube channel. She’s talking to her (barely existent) audience about the importance of being yourself. “People think that I’m quiet or shy,” she says, “but I’m not quiet. I don’t talk a lot at school, but if people talked to me and stuff, they’d find out that I’m funny and cool and talkative.”
Like many of us, Kayla wants to be seen, regarded, and loved. And, like many of us, she expresses that desire through social media, projecting a highly edited version of herself through YouTube videos and doctored Instagram photos. But those carefully curated images don’t display her anxiety, her discomfort with her body, or her feelings of inadequacy, which are painfully clear to her the rest of the time.
Most of us who managed to survive middle school regard it as the most awkward time in our lives, when we cared deeply about how others see us, but were just as deeply unsure of how we saw ourselves. Eighth Grade uses that to tell a story about perception, one which applies to adults as much as it does to 13-year-olds. Burnham’s film explores how we want to be perceived by others, the harsh ways we perceive ourselves, and the way we’re perceived by those who see us fully, and love us unconditionally.
Set during the last week of Kayla’s eighth grade year, Burnham follows his tween heroine as she attends a popular girl’s birthday party, shadows a group of high schoolers, and tries to catch the attention of her big crush. None of these experiences are terribly unique, but Burnham treats them with epic scale that’s on par with how important they feel to Kayla. Some moments, like a pool party shot in a way that recalls a Hieronymus Bosch painting, take on an absurd, inherently funny nature. But crucially, Kayla’s emotions are never treated as a joke. Burnham has immense respect for his character’s fragility and earnestness, as does Fisher, who brings an uncanny naturalism to her performance.
The desire to be seen, and the performative nature that desire takes on, are topics Burnham — a comedian who rose to prominence through YouTube as a teenager — is intimately familiar with. Burnham’s stand-up is highly performative and rehearsed, but also emotionally honest, a kind of meta-commentary on the shallowness of our performative culture, and the deep insecurities it masks. Burnham wants his audience to find a way they can fulfill that need to be regarded and loved, without feeling they have to put on a dishonest, pandering face to do it.
In Eighth Grade, this sentiment takes the form of Kayla’s supportive dad Mark (Josh Hamilton), who repeatedly tells his daughter how proud he is of her. Though Kayla acts embarrassed by him for most of the movie, Mark refuses to stop expressing his love and pride. He’s the one character who knows Kayla fully, and sees her not as weird or out of place, but as beautiful and brave and creative.
Mark could represent any supportive, doting parent. But his relationship to Kayla also recalls God the Father’s relationship to us. Just as Mark sees his daughter completely, God knows us completely, too, seeing the whole arc of our lives and embracing us along with our flaws, strengths, fears, and hopes. And just as Burnham places immense importance on the banal struggles of Kayla’s everyday life, God sees the epic importance of our experiences, too. A pool party may not be the apocalypse, but God understands how scary it can seem to the anxious girl who’s only there because someone’s mom invited her.
Eighth Grade understands the human need to be seen and understood, and answers it with a reminder that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made. Even at our lowest points, we have the reassurance of knowing that we have a heavenly parent who sees us for our good qualities and understands the daily battles we face. Through her experiences, Kayla learns that unconditional love doesn’t require performance. That’s a lesson the rest of us should keep in mind, too.