Creators Statement – ‘Eighth Grade: The Contemporary Teen Film’
This video essay explores Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham, 2018, USA), a recent example of the ‘teen film’ genre that has received critical acclaim since its release last year. The film follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a thirteen-year-old girl in her final days of eighth grade, before she will make the difficult transition to high school. Through contextualising the film within the context of the recent history and writings on the teen film, the essay seeks to illustrate how its portrayal of social anxiety in Kayla, as well as how the ubiquity of social media and the internet in today’s teen lives, reflects our current culture – consequently becoming a defining film of the genre for the 2010s.
The critical writings that surround the teen film genre generally consolidate around several ideas. While several aren’t directly cited in the video essay for reasons of time and fluidity, their ideas greatly influenced the script by bringing me greater clarity of the context of the genre. For example, the assertion established by Timothy Shary and reiterated by multiple critics, regarding the age range and subject of the teen film is alluded to in order to establish the genre in the essay quickly. The most significant idea to the essay is that the most defining teen films reflect the culture in which they are set and were made in. As cited in the video essay, Shary writes that “Teen films, like successive generations of teenagers themselves, have grown up and changed with the times, testing their boundaries, exploring their potential and seeking new identities.” Eighth Grade does exactly this, testing the boundaries of the teen genre by genuinely exploring contemporary issues for teenagers, which have gone unexplored in recent years due to the generally lower profile of the teen film in Hollywood. In her book, Betty Kaklamanidou suggests that the end of the studio-era ‘teen comedy’ came in 2010 with Easy A (Will Gluck, USA, 2010), and that this has given rise to more mature indie content, like Eighth Grade could be attributed too. However, the crucial themes and motifs of the teen film have now continued to resonate despite this movement.
Recurring themes, plots and motifs have been identified by critics, as laid out in the video essay through a variety of films that stretch back to the 1980s, where the genre boomed and many of the key themes were widely established in the cinematic and public sphere. Catherine Driscoll lays out three key themes in her overview: “the rite of passage to social independence; the bodily and social trauma of developing a coherent individual identity; and the interplay between developing agency and social alienation.” As illustrated in the later sections of the video essay, these themes appear in Eighth Grade through its contemporary viewpoint, displaying how identity has been complicated by social media and the internet as well as the rise in acknowledged anxiety and depression in teenagers.
Contributing to the film’s overall impact is the contemporary realism it achieves through the character of Kayla. The overly matured or idealised appearances and/or dialogue of many iconic teen film characters and actors, as observed by Roz Kaveney in her book, Teen Dreams to embody “an adolescence that has nothing in common with anything we actually experienced,” are not seen in Kayla’s appearance. As shown in the video essay, her acne and body is highlighted throughout the film to resemble an actual teenage girl of her age, with little attempt made to look ‘prettier’ unless the character consciously does so herself. Additionally, the true inarticulacy of teenagers is shown through her and the other teen characters’ dialogue, which incorporates vocal tics and mannerisms – such as an overreliance on the word “like” as a connector in sentences.
The essay goes onto examine the frank portrayal of social anxiety in the film, which is pointedly relevant to today where reported cases of teenagers suffering from mental health issues has risen substantially in the last fifteen years alone. The discussion is based around the ‘Pool Party’ sequence, where the heightened sense of stakes inherent to the narrative conflicts in teen films manifests by the event becoming a social minefield for Kayla. The sequence first depicts her candidly experiencing a panic attack before rendering the scene of the party to be horrifying through her gaze. By rendering these experiences, the film illustrates its exploration of the genre and strong relation to today’s social issues.
Tied into her anxiety is the question of identity, a pivotal theme to the teen film considering these are the ages that are most formative to the development of people’s identity. As referred to earlier, the prevalence of social media and the internet amongst adolescents further adds to the complexity of identity. From an early age, youths are consciously constructing identities through social media platforms as a form of self-actualisation, while the way they interact has directly informed the way they interact. The film reflects this in Kayla, who makes vlogs on YouTube giving advice, as a method of creating her ideal self. The reality is her quiet and anxious demeanour, demonstrating that the advice is really addressed to herself. These personas are both made visible within clips highlighted in the essay.
The reliance and importance of social media and the internet is not heavily critiqued by Burnham in the film, who has stated in interviews that instead the general “living with (the internet) is what I was trying to visualise” and that “it’s not some giant crisis.” Most significantly, this is vital to the current youth generation, where the apps displayed in the film, such as Instagram and Tumblr, are increasingly popular platforms in the real world. By non-judgmentally displaying these social trends that define childhoods in the twenty-first century, the film again reflects today’s culture and thus matches the significant feature of the teen film as written by Shary.
These illustrations of contemporary culture are indeed what make Eighth Grade the defining teen film of our current generation. Like how the films of John Hughes define the youth culture of the 1980s, the video essay asserts that the film is firmly marked as a powerful indicator of this period for generations to come.
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BUILD series, ‘Bo Burnham and the Cast of “Eighth Grade” discuss their new film’ (20 July 2018), online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUzFkqby6-c.
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Hill, Logan, ‘Bo Burnham on ‘Eighth Grade,’ Anxiety and Why Social Media Is a Curse’, Rolling Stone (2018), online: https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/bo-burnham-eighth-grade-interview-700514/.
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Kaveney, Roz, Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film and Television from Heathers to Veronica Mars (London & New York: I.B. Taurus, 2006).
Murray, Iana, ‘Bo Burnham and the Changing Face of Internet Comedy’, The Skinny (21 Feb 2019), online: https://www.theskinny.co.uk/film/opinion/eighth-grade-bo-burnham-and-dissecting-the-internet.
Oscars (Youtube), ‘Academy Conversations: Eighth Grade’ (19 July 2018), online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJmunVzdvLY.
Sandberg, Bryn Elise, ‘Making of ‘Eighth Grade’: How Bo Burnham Brought His Anxiety to Screen in the Form of a 13-Year-Old Girl’, The Hollywood Reporter (21 November 2018), online: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/making-eighth-grade-how-bo-burnham-brought-his-anxiety-screen-1162239.
Shary, Timothy, ‘Teen Films: The Cinematic Image of Youth’, in Grant, Barry Keith (ed.), Film Genre Reader IV (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2012).
Shary, Timothy, Teen movies: American youth on screen (London: Wallflower, 2005).
Slater-Williams, Josh, ‘Bo Burnham on Eighth Grade, teens and the internet’, The Skinny (14 Feb 2019), online: https://www.theskinny.co.uk/festivals/uk-festivals/film/bo-burnham-on-eighth-grade-internet-social-media.
Meredith, Anna, Eighth Grade (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), Columbia Records, 2018. Simple Minds, ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, The Breakfast Club (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), Virgin/A&M,
 Timothy Shary, ‘Teen Films: The Cinematic Image of Youth’, in Barry Keith Grant (ed.), Film Genre Reader IV (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2012), p. 581.
 Timothy Shary, Teen movies: American youth on screen (London: Wallflower, 2005), p. 3.
 Betty Kaklamanidou, Easy A: The End of the High-School Teen Comedy? (London: Taylor and Francis, 2018), p. 25-28.
 Catherine Driscoll, Teen film: A critical introduction (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2011), p. 6.
 Roz Kaveney, Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film and Television from Heathers to Veronica Mars (London & New York: I.B. Taurus, 2006), p. 1-2.
 Josh Slater-Williams, ‘Bo Burnham on Eighth Grade, teens and the internet’, The Skinny (14 Feb 2019), online: https://www.theskinny.co.uk/festivals/uk-festivals/film/bo-burnham-on-eighth-grade-internet-social-media