The Art of Performance in Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade
Eleven years ago, when many of us first experienced Bo Burnham’s irreverent brand of comedy, it was through the lens of a crappy little camera, paired with the horribly unbalanced, loud sounds of a cheap keyboard in a bedroom. Burnham’s first YouTube videos were full of the kind of humor that’d never fly in today’s culture, but, in that different cultural landscape, Burnham’s edgy subject matter, paired with his plain style and fun songwriting, made his infectious comedy songs spread like wildfire through the early internet, especially in middle schools like mine.
As Burnham’s comedy evolved, so did the attitudes of his performances, growing into something more mature and nuanced. While a lot of that often offensive humor was still a common thread in his stand-up shows, as well as his brilliantly cringe-inducing MTV show, Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous, the focus started to revolve around the concepts of fame, performance, and the negative effects of the two on the mind. The live acts started to push the boundaries from typical musical comedy to grow much closer to a variation on performance art. In later comedy specials, Burnham could effortlessly make the audience laugh and cry within the same six-minute closing bit.
Material that had once been based entirely on shock value had transformed entirely into something introspective and somber. In his final special, Make Happy, Burnham practically pulls his heart out and offers it to the audience as he confesses every anxiety and vulnerability that these performances planted within him. And this all happens in the final moments of a song that had been mostly about the woes of small Pringle cans and overstuffed burritos.
And yet, that brilliant part of the show is only revealed after a song that jokingly tells the audience over and over to kill themselves. While it’s radically more palatable than most of his older work, the thick layer of cynicism and darkness was still difficult for many to see through to the wonderful heart of his work. Even at his most accessible moments, Burnham was aggressively not-for-everyone.
The turnaround from this feeling of audience alienation is a big part of what makes Eighth Grade, his feature film directorial debut, feel like as much of a flat-out miracle as it does. This is a critical film for the titular age group, of course, but the film allows anyone, regardless of gender or age, to see themselves within the main character, Kayla, who’s played with tremendous skill by Elsie Fisher.
The film follows Kayla’s last week of middle school as she prepares to graduate. The week is full of all sorts of nail-biting events many would instantly associate with this time in their lives, like the wildly uncomfortable pool party and her fleeting crushes on obnoxious boys. In all of these uniquely eighth grade moments, any viewer who’s been through this same harsh period of life can find something relatable. We’ve all been to places where we weren’t wanted and felt that pressure. We’ve all felt insecure in our bodies at some point or another. And we’ve all cringed in paralyzing embarrassment when we looked back at ourselves from years before. Eighth Grade has that superficial sense of recognition and nostalgia that even much less capable coming-of-age stories can achieve.
Where it stands apart is how it treats these events. As adults, we can look back on these events and see how silly it all was with our 20/20 hindsight, but that perspective is truly inaccurate. Things that may seem ridiculous as we get older are what shape our lives in our youth. The anxiety attacks had in bathrooms before changing into bathing suits are just as soul-crushing and stressful as panic that stems from deadlines and huge life changes in later years. In Eighth Grade, Burnham’s steady directorial hand successfully brings this to life in a way that not only reminds us of these hard times, but brings them to life in such an immersive way that we can’t help but feel the full emotional toll of these seemingly little things that weigh on Kayla daily. This sense of stress and anxiety is a truly human emotion that everyone knows intimately, even if their current experiences with it are as far from Kayla’s as possible.
However, that’s not the only thing that makes the film so vital for audiences of all ages. By entwining Kayla’s difficulties with real, terrifying issues that still plague us today, Eighth Grade makes itself critical viewing for viewers of all ages. Besides the strong sense of anxiety that is the lifeblood of the film, a nerve-wracking scene in the backseat of a friend-of-a-friend’s car evokes the current #metoo movement in such an unbelievably uncomfortable way that an unprepared viewer can be left squirming uncontrollably in their seat, as desperate to get out of the theater as Kayla is to get out of that car.
As impactful as that moment is, though, it’s still not the biggest problem we have in common with her. At their core, every problem Kayla has boils down to one familiar issue that Burnham shares: performance. As a Generation Z kid, she has been raised with social media and technology. Besides all the usual performing we’ve all learned naturally, like behaving differently with different groups of people, Kayla lives in an almost perpetual state of performance. Whenever she’s not recording her unpopular advice videos, she’s doing her makeup and hair just to take selfies in bed. At school, she’s trying to change and push herself further than she’s comfortable, and it often comes back to bite her. The monologue given by Kayla as she walks into that terrifying pool party on presenting different versions of yourself is a more internalized version of Burnham’s “We Think We Know You” from what., which focuses on the different ways various people perceive performers. Where Burnham’s performances have been on grander scales, Kayla’s stage is her life, and her performances only end when she breaks down completely. Through her catharsis, we learn alongside her to step back occasionally and consider who we really are versus what we’re projecting. And though “be yourself” is a message we’ve all been taught time and time again in films for audiences of all ages, it’s never been taught as complexly, personally, and universally than in Eighth Grade.