Social media has now been around long enough that teens who grew up with it are now adults who can make art about that experience. If stereotypes about young people and the internet were true, one might expect such art to be narcissistic or shallow or Instagrammy. But Eighth Grade, a new movie written and directed by Bo Burnham, a former YouTube star, is generous and deep, and makes room for all the facets of its protagonist’s self, not just the shiniest, most camera-ready ones.
In the film, a 13-year-old girl named Kayla is feeling her way through the dark forest of middle-school social life. On-screen, the scenery keeps changing: How should she act in the classroom? At a popular classmate’s pool party? At the mall with a new group of friends? And is she a totally different person on the internet, in the vlogs she makes in which she offers advice and pep talks? “Being yourself can be hard,”she says, “and it’s like, ‘Aren’t I always being myself?’” Kayla’s sweet and stumbling attempts to answer that question in these different scenarios—in real life and online—are the driving force of the movie.
Burnham, like Kayla, was extremely online in his youth; unlike Kayla, he got famous for it—YouTube videos he shot of himself performing funny songs led to a comedy career, and now a film career. What a life lived publicly online seems to have given Burnham is the humility not to present himself as an expert on “kids these days” or as a moral authority on the dangers of social media. The beauty of the internet, he says, is that kids are telling and showing the world what their lives are like, and to understand them, one need only pay attention.