Film

‘Eighth Grade’ Is Unbearable To Watch, But In The Best Way

“Anxiety kind of makes you feel like a kid."

Eighth Grade interview Elsie Fisher

“Anxiety kind of makes you feel like a kid,” Bo Burnham tells me. “It just does.”

Being a teenager sucks, and there have been many attempts to show this on screen — however, no movie or TV show has been able to throw me back to the awkward horrors of being a teenager quite as easily as Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.

Watching a movie about a teenage girl by a stand-up comedian shouldn’t be making me want to put my head between my knees in panic, but here we freaking are.

Watching Elsie, the exquisitely awkward thirteen-year-old girl at the centre of Eighth Grade enter the unique horror of a pool party, I couldn’t stop looping the chorus’ of Ariana Grande’s ‘breathin’: ‘just keep breathin’, and breathin’, and breathin’.

Written and directed by stand-up comedian turned filmmaker Bo Burnham, the film follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher, Despicable Me) in her final week of eighth grade, as she prepares for her transition into high school.

Since the film’s release, fans alike have been tweeting about how unbearable Eighth Grade is to watch, due to how awkward and cringe-inducing it is.

Oh my god, it’s so difficult to watch.

Kayla is constantly anxious (though her shyness at school may not reflect what she feels on the inside). Who Kayla is, and everything she feels in the film– alone, nervous, awkward, embarrassed, anxious — is exactly how I felt watching it. These feelings are familiar to me.

And yet, Eighth Grade is also one of my favourite films of 2018.

“I think it’s really beautiful how many people can relate to [Kayla].” The film’s fifteen-year-old star Elsie Fisher tells me in an interview for Junkee, “Even just within the scope of how they feel watching the film versus how she feels, that was very special to me.”

With a bunch of indie and film festival awards, and a Golden Globe nom under its belt, the film has been labelled a breakout indie hit. But why exactly are we celebrating a film that’s capable of bringing back every single excruciating anxiety of our teenage years?

#RelatableContent

Kayla is your typical 2018 teenager. She makes vlogs extolling life advice on YouTube (which only get one view), sends Snapchats with filters and she continuously scrolls through Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, even at the dinner table.

Yet, Burnham’s understanding of the Internet Generation is similar to how John Hughes was able to capture the isolating contradictions of being a teenager in the 80s (Elsie Fisher’s favourite teen film is Pretty in Pink, by the way, and we are now best friends).

Like Hughes, this understanding of “the kids” makes Eighth Grade also a very human story, a very universal one. Being thirteen sucks, no matter what year it is.

Bo Burnham tells me that his aim was to approach the film with an eye-level lens “[Kayla’s] experience is as interesting and deep to me as anyone.”

He also reckons the grown-ups in the world (including the current US President of his country) aren’t so different from Kayla: “I’m looking at the landscape of adults and they’re all acting like thirteen-year olds, so it’s more like she is the only person acting her age,” he says.

Throughout the film, Kayla stutters and pauses, she talks too fast, is too loud or too quiet. She’s says ‘like’ all the time, is inarticulate and struggles to get her point across– a vast contrast to the smooth-talking teens on CW’s Riverdale (like, you’re supposed to be sixteen Veronica? I don’t believe you).

Going Back To The Eighth Grade

And it’s realistic: teens are so not articulate in real life — it’s also how we both talk in the interview — but Fisher’s Golden Globe nominated portrayal of Kayla also represents her anxious and overactive mind.

“I relate to her very deeply,” Fisher tells me, “Especially with the anxiety and the way she spoke.”

While writing this piece (a week of feeling like a teenager) I caught up with a friend I have had since I was ten years old. “God, I was awful in high school,” I say to her as we reminisce. “What? No,” she replied to me. “You really weren’t.”

My anxieties convinced me I was too weird and no one liked me (I still feel this now in my early twenties, tbh). I was nervous and awkward and catastrophised everything. Normal social interactions felt hard. I barely knew what I was doing (but what teenager does?).

High school was terrifying because my mind made it so.

In the film, Kayla describes her anxiety to being nervous all the time, or like the butterflies you get before a rollercoaster. Seeing her rehearse answering the phone before making a phone call, or practicing normal, casual conversations with invisible people filled me with butterflies.

Burnham, too, has been very vocal about his anxiety, especially as he has moved away from stand-up comedy.

“It was so cathartic to [write the script] and to be able to express those things from a kid sort of perspective. I had been trying to talk about my anxiety in myself for a long time and it was so much easier for [Kayla] to express it for me.”

Putting the “Social” in Social Anxiety

It is easy to argue that our constant connection to social media is to blame for our (Burnham’s, Kayla’s, Fisher’s, my own) anxiety, but it is also too simple an argument. Bo Bunham has a lot of experience with the online world,  making a name for himself on the internet as a former YouTube sensation and Vine star.

“It’s kind of ironic in that way — the new form we have to express our problems is maybe causing the problems we’re expressing. It’s a good place to express your feelings, but it’s also for me an overload of expression.” Burnham said.

“I’m not saying I wouldn’t have anxiety if I didn’t have the internet,” said Burnham, “and I don’t think Kayla would have not had anxiety if she didn’t have the internet, but it certainly doesn’t… help. Or maybe it can help in a certain way. I think it helps her to make her videos, and it helps her to talk about those things out loud.”

Just Keep Breathin’

BeyondBlue describes anxiety as the number one mental health condition in Australia. It will affect one in four Australians at some point throughout their life — one in three women and one in five men. Yet the topic of anxiety is still seldom talked about, leaving audiences unprepared for the raw honesty of Eighth Grade.

“I have gone all across America with this film,” Fisher told me, “and I have met so many people who feel the same way I do and how Kayla does and Bo and it’s just so interesting to me how no one talks about it.”

“What I treasure most about [the movie] is that it is honest and vulnerable,” Fisher said. “I feel like, people are very open about [anxiety] on social media and it leaks into a lot of humour, but it’s still kind of a taboo thing. You don’t catch people really talking about how they feel.”

Headspace, a youth mental health organisation, lists self-care and being open with talking about your anxiety as way to help manage it, so it’s important that a film like Eighth Grade — a film that has reached teens and older audiences alike– has made such a big impact.

Eighth Grade very nearly gave me a panic attack, as it kicked my brain into overdrive, catastrophizing about what I was like in high school, who I am now, my writing.

But talking about anxiety helps. Talking to Bo and Elsie helped. Eighth Grade helps.

Claire is a writer, bookseller and Greta Gerwig wannabe. Catch her trying to figure out how to insert how much she loves teen movies in to every conversation on the streets of Melbourne — and on Twitter: @theclairencew.