“The topic of today’s video,” declares 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher), speaking to her nearly non-existent YouTube audience in the indie hit Eighth Grade, “is being yourself. Being yourself can be hard and it’s, like, aren’t I always being myself?”
As anyone who has been through eighth grade knows: No, you aren’t always being yourself. And, yes, being yourself is hard. Being yourself is hard because it raises the almost unanswerable question, “Who is ‘myself?’”
For Kayla, a charmingly awkward, slouchy, pimply teen girl who is trying very hard, the question comes up each time she opens Instagram to post another duck-faced selfie. Or when she sees beautiful Aiden (Luke Prael), voted “Best Eyes” by her classmates. Or tries to interact with mean girl Kennedy (Catherine Olivere). The question comes up when she is voted “Most Quiet,” even though, as she says on YouTube, if you get to know her she can be “really funny and fun to talk to.” The real Kayla, as Kayla works to convince herself and pretends to be on YouTube, is confident, cool, and probably with a cute boyfriend.
The debut film from writer-director Bo Burnham, who got his start as a YouTuber, Eighth Grade is certainly a coming-of-age film, exploring the relentlessly awkward world of contemporary teen life. But unlike many teen romps or weepy journeys of self-discovery, Eighth Grade does not follow a predictable moral arc. Nor is it a coming-of-age film that implies there’s some moment when we stop “coming of age.” Instead, Burnham’s remarkable film illustrates, in an indirect way, the biblical truth that our true selves might not be known this side of heaven. Even so, from the perspective of the Father, we’re already there.
Taking place over a week in Kayla’s life, the film uses the constructed selves of social media and the awkwardness of puberty to underscore the plurality of selves in modern adolescent life. In addition to the various personas Kayla adopts for InstaSnapYouFacegram, the film also introduces us to a past version of Kayla, in the form of a time-capsule audio file she made in sixth grade for her future, eighth-grade self. After a particularly soul-crushing day, Kayla pulls out the thumb drive containing the message and is first greeted by a flurry of questions from her younger version: “Do you have a boyfriend? Is he nice? What’s the coolest thing you’ve done? What’s the second coolest thing you’ve done?” Sixth-grade Kayla is decidedly more optimistic about her future than eighth-grade Kayla currently feels about that present reality. “I hope all your friends are being nice to you, because you deserve it. I can’t wait to be you! Byeeee!”
Eighth Grade illustrates the biblical truth that our true selves might not be known this side of heaven.
A child of the social media age, Burnham has a deep understanding of ourselves as now and not-yet, being simultaneously in the past, present, and future. (Spoilers ahead.) We see Kayla working out an idea of her “self” through her YouTube videos—moments from her life staged for her disembodied audience. Yet we cannot help but be profoundly struck by how tied up this fantasy Kayla is with the actual people around her —friends, classmates, teachers. And, most of all, her father (Josh Hamilton).
In one particularly vital moment, we learn that Kayla’s mom left the family when Kayla was a baby, leaving her dad a frightened and insecure single parent, worried about the person his infant daughter would become. In one of the greatest dad moments in the history of film, Kayla’s father reassures her that now, in her self-loathing, moody, socially awkward, eighth-grade guise, he sees a person he knows “is going to be OK.” Listening to her father’s words, I was also struck by their resonance with the gospel: “I stopped being scared about whether you’d be OK or not a long time ago, Kayla. You know why? Because of you. You were too good. You made me brave, Kayla. And if you could just see yourself like I see you … the way you really are, the way you always have been … I promise you wouldn’t be scared either.”
OK, it’s not exactly the gospel—as people in need of redemption, we’re definitely not “too good”—but there is deep truth embedded in the affirmation that Kayla’s father offers: that if she could just see herself as he sees her, if she could look into the future as he reads it from her past, then she wouldn’t be scared.
Like Kayla, we may look at ourselves and wonder if we’re “being ourselves.” What’s more we may wonder if being ourselves is good enough. But if we listen to our Heavenly Father, we will hear him telling us that we’re going to be OK. As Paul wrote, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” This is not the sort of completeness we can fully know now. Yes, in a real sense, it’s the way we have always been—since the foundations of the world—but in the same sense, it’s a truth which only exists in the future, as we wait for the renewal of all things.
At the end of her week, holding to the vision of herself offered by her father, Kayla makes a new video addressed to her future, high-school senior self. She congratulates herself for finishing high school, asks a few questions (“Do you have a boyfriend? It’s totally cool if you don’t, but if you do, I hope he’s treating you well. You deserve it.”) and reminds herself to always “be yourself, because you are a really good person.”
“And if things aren’t going great for you,” she adds, “I’m sorry and that sucks but just remember that you’re a lot stronger than you think you are. Stay cool. I can’t wait to be you.”
Eighth Grade understands that it is hard to be yourself. And you’re never done becoming yourself. But if you can see yourself from the right perspective—if you know how truly loved you are and if you can see yourself from the perspective of the One who loves you most—you will know that it’s going to be OK.