They say that Hollywood is high school but with money, and while watching Bo Burnham’s new film Eighth Grade, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, I started to wonder if that old saying is a few grades too generous. At first, this very specific junior-high story seems to have little to do with Hollywood, except for the obvious observation that everyone had to suffer through eighth grade once — even the adults who are now rich and famous. But as Burnham’s ambitious movie goes on — and, in particular, as it tackles an astonishingly candid scene of sexual intimidation that had the audience buzzing — I was surprised to find that this story about a 13-year-old girl has plenty to say to adults about the fraught cultural moment we have found ourselves in when it comes to sex and power.
Don’t get me wrong: For the most part, Eighth Grade is a comedy, albeit the kind that comes with a healthy helping of cringe. The protagonist is Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an acne-ridden girl so shy and awkward that she’s voted “Most Silent” by her junior-high peers. The only time Kayla feels confident enough to talk at length is when she’s recording inspirational YouTube videos; though, even then, she’s emulating other teens who take to that format far more easily. Kayla may spend her webcam time delivering filibuster-length testimonials on how to be confident and access “the real you,” but in real life, she hasn’t figured out how to do any of those things.
The biggest mystery to her is the opposite sex. Kayla has such a crush on classmate Aiden (Luke Prael) that her world goes into slow-motion when she spots him, though she’s not attuned enough to her own still-developing wants and desires to diagnose them. When a horny Aiden asks Kayla if she gives blow jobs, she nonchalantly answers that she does, before running home to look up exactly how oral sex works on YouTube. Kayla’s own childishly inspirational videos are just a click away from those blow-job tutorials, but Eighth Grade isn’t a fear-the-internet polemic: Adolescence has always been about that liminal phase where innocence collides with experience, and all of Kayla’s classmates are eager to simulate being older until they finally get to high school.
And that’s where things get tricky. The clouds finally part for Kayla when a kind older girl, Olivia, becomes Kayla’s first real friend. Olivia and her pals are about to graduate from high school, but they let Kayla tag along with them to the mall, where she tries her damnedest to fit in and, on the ride home, suddenly finds herself alone with Olivia’s friend Riley (Daniel Zolgahdri). He pulls over, gets in the backseat with her, and instigates a fraught game of truth or dare with this nervous girl who is four years his junior.
After a few minutes of insinuations, Riley asks Kayla, who has never kissed a boy, how far she’s gone sexually. “Third base,” answers Kayla, who has pulled the term from thin air. Off his reaction, she walks it backwards: “Second base.”
Riley takes his shirt off, stares at Kayla further, and asks Kayla to tell a truth or pick a dare. When she chooses to tell a truth, he tells her “You’re no fun,” until she consents to the latter.
“Take your shirt off,” he says to her.
Thirteen, inexperienced, and trapped in an older boy’s car in the middle of nowhere, Kayla has no idea what to do. Despite his pressure, she refuses to take her shirt off, and when a pissed-off Riley returns to the driver’s seat, Kayla begins to apologize profusely. She’s certain that the error was hers.
“I’m really sorry,” she says, over and over.
“I was trying to help you,” Riley whines, telling Kayla that if she had gone all the way with him, he could have saved her from embarrassment later in life. Now, he claims, she’ll be bad at sex when the time comes, and whoever takes her virginity will surely make fun of her afterwards. You could hear the audience gasp at that, though Kayla just takes it, goes home, and cries.
On its own, the sequence would be tense and uncomfortable, but after months of sexual-misconduct claims in Hollywood and an ensuing wave of change and debate that has happened all over the world, it was hard not to think of those real-life events while watching Eighth Grade. As Riley relentlessly cajoled Kayla, I recalled that awful audiotape of Harvey Weinstein attempting to gaslight a model into entering his hotel room, and though Riley would think he did nothing wrong — after all, he eventually returned to the front seat without even touching or kissing Kayla — the contours of his intimidation reminded me of the difficult conversation we’re having about sexual coercion in the wake of the Aziz Ansari scandal.
“It maybe portrays a certain type of toxic male behavior that advertises itself as sweet and understanding and sensitive and is anything but,” Burnham said during the post-premiere Q&A, when I asked him about conceiving the scene. Burnham, who found online fame early in his career as a young comedian, even alluded to similar events in his own life.
“Without getting too specific, the idea of being young and taken advantage of by someone older than you is not foreign to me personally,” he said. “I felt that it’s true, it’s something that happens, and it needs to be shown.”
And while some may blanche at seeing such an intense scene with a 13-year-old girl, Burnham said that Kayla became his avatar. Originally, he had envisioned Eighth Grade as a film with ten intersecting characters, which would allow him to tackle the subject of the internet and his own anxiety through a whole host of different personalities. Then he created Kayla and found that a teenage girl could encompass a whole world. “I stumbled on this voice,” he told us, “and found I could say everything I wanted and more through her.” At Sundance, at least, audiences were eager to listen.