Bo Burnham’s new coming-of-age comedy Eighth Grade records the ultimate act of bravery: leaving middle school for high school. During her last week of eighth grade, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) tries to befriend the Instagram-obsessed popular girls, gets tongue-tied talking to the class hot guy, and spends a day shadowing a high-school student. The movie leans into all the awkwardness of being a teen: the BO, the acne, the act of trying to explain to your dad why someone else is Cool and you’re Not. As Kayla herself puts it to her YouTube audience, “Growing up can be a little bit scary and weird.”
For adults, Eighth Grade has proven to be particularly resonant — we all have those middle-school memories that make us wince in pain, embarrassment, or nostalgia (or wish we could do our teen years over). But what of those viewers who are currently living it? Though the Eighth Grade’s R rating bars unaccompanied youngsters from attending the film, Generation Z’s take on the material should be of special interest, considering their ground-level vantage point, embedded in the active war zone of high school.
To find out, Vulture reached out to a group of ninth graders — teens who’ve successfully navigated the perils of being 13 and have moved onto the horrors of 14 and beyond. We found four students who’d just finished the ninth grade — Blerina, Bella, Oscar, and Ina — and surveyed their thoughts on Kayla’s insecurities, her YouTube videos, and if the popular kids still matter.
“Did you find Kayla’s relationship with her dad realistic?”
Bella: I think that [Kayla and her dad’s relationship] was a little bit too perfect, but then again, it makes sense that being a single dad, she’d be his everything. The dad jokes were on point, too. I don’t really think it was an exaggeration of his niceness — as an only child to a single dad, she’d have all of his attention, so he might make fewer mistakes. He’d be really devoted.
Blerina: My mom’s always stressing about everything. They love me a lot, I always see them. They are protective, I guess, ‘cause I’m foreign. So I just think foreign parents are always harder. So they’re just protective, and they just don’t want me to be wrong things, and they just want me to be successful. So they’re always wondering, they always ask me about my grades … I thought [Kayla’s dad] was actually being a really good father, since her mother left. It’s really important for dads connect with teen girls. It’s always kind of the mom doing that.
Oscar: I thought that [their relationship] was very unrealistic, and a little frustrating. The scenes where she’s at the dinner table with earbuds in, on her phone — that’s a terrible moment of parenting. At my house, no phones at the table. This girl should have some manners, some decency while she’s in the house. Both of them are lonely, both of them are missing people in their life. The dad could’ve done a better job setting those rules, and she could’ve done a better job treating him nicely.
Ina: It’s kind of the opposite at my house — my parents are the ones on the phone, and I’m the one yelling at them. I feel like when I want to talk to them, they’re not listening at all.
“Does social media ever stress you out like it does Kayla?”
Oscar: I feel like girls are more worried about their image. They would make the sacrifice of having no friends but a good image, rather than boys who don’t work on their image a lot but have a good group of friends. A good image means having a lot of Instagram followers. Trying to put out this image of the perfect life, you know? Perfect body, perfect hair … I wouldn’t say that [being a guy online] is more “chill.” It’s like — well, actually, I guess it is kind of chill. But I also know guys who spend so much time on Snapchat, just as much on Instagram as any girl.
Ina: The part where the boy is talking about sending nudes, that’s so real. That happens so much. It’s so bad. I feel like guys in middle school don’t how to have a relationship because they’re so young that they don’t even bother at all. I didn’t have a boyfriend in eighth grade.
Bella: I have Instagram and Snapchat. Most of the time, I only use Snapchat to talk to my friends. If you’re going to do a post, that’s really for Instagram. There’s a lot of pressure to look skinny and perfect and pretty, and I personally don’t think that it’s healthy. There are high standards for beauty, and when you’re expected to look a certain way in your posts online, it’s a lot of stress.
“Is being one of the ‘popular kids’ still such a big deal?”
Blerina: The worst part of eighth grade was the popular girls, the mean girls. I feel like, everyone just always gets attention, they get all the attention. They’re just friends with all the people. Everyone that year has their first things, like I had my dances, and you just weren’t a part of that group and you wish you were, but at the same time you really didn’t want to. So I guess it was really just the popular kids.
Oscar: I would say there’s still stock in [the idea of being popular], but in a different form. “Popular” is a term that’s kind of dying. But there’s still that same hierarchy. The same idea that there are levels, and that there’s an elite group at the top of the class. I wouldn’t know what to call them, though. Not “popular …” It’s still about being cool and hot, but it’s more than that. It’s about being funny, having personality. Which I guess is kind of the same as before, but the term “popular” is just dead.
Bella: I was really awkward and shy talking to new people, and only outgoing when I was around my friends. When I got to ninth grade, I realized that — in eighth grade, I thought people were constantly judging me, or like, wanting me to fail. But then I realized that that’s not true. Nobody’s hoping for you to fail. If you just talk to people and get to know them, you’ll find that you’re the only one stopping yourself from making new friends and having fun … I think she handled the mean girls very well, but I would still tell her not to worry about them anymore. In ninth grade, you lose all your popularity going from middle school to high school. It’s a completely different dynamic. She doesn’t have to worry about those girls at all. They’ll be doing their own thing, they won’t be at the top of the heap. It all changes once you’re in high school.
“If you could go into the movie and give Kayla one bit of advice, what would you tell her?”
Oscar: Occupy yourself. Find something to do, even just a hobby. Something she wants to do, or something she’s made to do — just anything other than basking in her own loneliness at her house. Me, I had a decently lonely eighth grade experience, and I found it started to get easier when I took up stuff like surfing or skateboarding or filmmaking, just getting out there.
Blerina: I think she’ll be fine, because middle school, from high school, you wouldn’t think that much would change. But it changed a lot. I think people don’t care as much. But I had a ton more drama this year than last year. Just like, with boys, blah blah blah. Not me, but my friends, and when you’re friends with certain people, then you just get dragged in right away. I think the best advice would be, just find your real friends and always be yourself. Don’t be fake. ‘Cause it’s really hard to come back from that.
Ina: I think she’s going to be a lot happier in high school. Especially because since she shadowed, she already made friends. I would just tell her, maybe to not be too desperate with some people. Like, especially with Aidan, since I felt like she was trying too hard and he wasn’t worth it.