It’s no secret that the film industry is desperately in need of films that treat mental illnesses with the respect and nuance they deserve. While not billed as a ‘film about mental illness,’ “Eighth Grade” is the coming-of-age film that addresses what is often a huge part of growing up (and beyond) for many of us — social anxiety.
“Eighth Grade,” written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, focuses on the last few days of 13-year-old Kayla’s titular year in middle school as she gears up to go to high school. Kayla is a loner in the true sense of the word – she has no ragtag group of nerds who sit with her at lunch – and the film centers on her struggle to break out of her shell during such a tumultuous time in her life.
The best part of the film’s treatment of social anxiety is that it is essentially an anti-revelation narrative. Many narratives involving mental illness, or even personal growth in general, climax with a ‘revelation’ that irrevocably affects a person’s life — the revelation changes who they are completely and they move on from whatever struggle they were going through. “Eighth Grade,” thankfully, does not treat its protagonist in this way. For every step forward Kayla makes, she embarasses herself or does what in her eyes is ‘messing up.’ This may sound like a drawback at first, but I can say from experience that anxiety can’t just be solved by telling yourself you have no reason to be anxious, or that people shouldn’t make you nervous. Kayla experiences the gradual growth, ups and downs and moments of genuine human connection that any person with anxiety can recognize as being true-to-life.
Furthermore, Burnham’s way of contextualizing Kayla’s ‘embarrassing’ behaviors in the scope of every person around her is majorly eye-opening. To her, her every awkward behavior or stutter is the end of the world, but the people around her either don’t notice or don’t care. Again, this could be seen as depressing, but to people who suffer from anxiety, seeing that not all eyes are on you all the time is freeing. That Kayla doesn’t seem to realize this herself actually benefits the film in that this can be a hard truth to accept, even when one has already understood it on an objective level.
Social media obviously plays a huge role in Kayla’s growth, and Burnham manages to integrate it into her anxiety problems throughout the film without ever seeming preachy. We see her gingerly try to navigate the unspoken ‘rules’ of Instagram, smile as she puts goofy filters on her usually solemn face and make YouTube videos where she gives others advice she sadly can’t seem to take herself. It’s uncommon to see a film that actually acknowledges that social media can have positive effects, and while Kayla’s self-conscious nature definitely reflects the stress social media can cause, Burnham also shows it as the useful tool it can be for someone who has trouble expressing themselves publicly. Kayla might nervously pace around her room when she calls a new friend, but she does it with a smile.
“Eighth Grade” will make you cringe, laugh and maybe even cry, but anyone who has ever felt like they wanted to crawl out of their skin can relate to Kayla’s struggles in middle school. Personally, “Eighth Grade” did for me what it has done for so many others — it made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my struggles.