by Tiia Kelly | January 21, 2021
There’s a clip from an interview with the actor Zach Woods I think about a lot. In the clip, the actor describes drawing inspiration for his Silicon Valley character, Jared, from a particular brand of shy teenage girl. To Woods, these girls are “privately, quietly, enormously capable,” yet, reserved in public disposition, keep their rich internal lives to themselves. It’s an unusually apt description of teen shyness, where someone — for one or a myriad of reasons — retreats into themselves, setting up a boundary between how they publicly engage with the world and privately experience it.
For thirteen-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, this retreating means turning herself over to digital self-documentation. The film takes place during her final week of middle school, kicked off by an assembly in which she’s voted ‘most quiet’ by her classmates. The story is punctuated by a series of vlogs, recorded by Kayla on Photo Booth on her Mac and posted to her YouTube channel. Each video depicts her monologuing on a self-given topic, delivering advice on themes like ‘Being Yourself’, ‘How to Be Confident’ and ‘Growing Up’. The irony (and immense pathos) of these vlogs derives from Kayla’s tendency to speak authoritatively on issues that, in the context of the film’s larger story, we understand her to be concurrently struggling with.
In one entry on ‘Putting Yourself Out There’, Kayla reflects on her social position in the third person, vaguely assuming the perspective of her popular classmate, Kennedy (Catherine Oliver), whose party she has been reluctantly invited to. The scene transitions from a direct-to-camera vlog to the main thread of the story, where Kayla’s advice continues in voiceover, the camera anxiously tracking her as she enters Kennedy’s party. We hear Vlog Kayla describe “this one weird girl” she’d been forced to invite to her own hypothetical party, but whom she learned was “really cool and funny” once she’d gotten to know her. The vlog constructs a projected ideal, illustrating the social acceptance she wishes for herself. In this simpler version of reality, Kayla can project a more socially adept version of herself, funnelling her anxiety into a character for whom overcoming an outcast position is just as easily said as it is done.
Viewed differently, the inherent performance of the vlogs enables Kayla to stake a claim to a certain time, place and identity. If in social circumstances she feels herself slipping away, the digital mode allows her a certain level of control over her self-presentation. These artefacts constitute a record: a small sphere of expression for Kayla to move around in, to stretch her limbs and hear her own self-assured voice played back to her. When social anxiety prevents her from publicly expressing herself, the vlogs become a means of asserting, at the very least, a kind of self — someone she’d like to be, until whoever she is can either catch up or overtake them.
The first time I watched Eighth Grade, I had just spent an afternoon transferring masses of images and videos from my desktop to an external hard drive. Like Kayla, I had taken many of them on my laptop with Photo Booth — a horde of selfies, mostly, from between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, composing a catalogue of my most emotionally turbulent teenage years. Looking at them now, these files practically do the work of my memory for me, evoking events and periods of my life I mightn’t ordinarily be able to recall. There are videos of me applying makeup; lip-syncing to Adele; trying to perform snappy choreography memorised from YouTube videos. Watching Eighth Grade immediately afterward, then, with these artefacts still lingering in my mind, I found myself feeling wildly protective over Kayla in a way I previously never had with a coming-of-age protagonist. Each time I heard the three countdown tones signalling a new Photo Booth recording, I could almost feel my own teenage body preparing to be captured, posing alongside Kayla’s.
Recently, my dad sent me a series of videos he’d discovered on his laptop of me at nine-years-old, vlogging in an American accent while my mum sat behind me, brushing a large knot out of my hair. In the videos, I am speaking to an imagined audience as though I’m a news anchor, discussing family members and providing a brief tour of the room around me. The videos are jarring for a number of reasons — my own high-pitched Americanised voice, for one — but mostly due to my direct-to-camera eye-contact and feigned confidence. While I may not have been voted ‘most quiet’ by my peers, I nevertheless spent most of my childhood and early adolescence being told to speak up more. To see myself at the peak of this shyness, speaking loudly and animatedly to no one in particular, is a testament to part of what personal digital archives do best. They capture a private and unseen self, preserving it to be retrieved, later, as proof that it once existed. The ‘shy teen’ figure as rendered by Eighth Grade does exactly this — retreating, documenting, and creating a record of themselves so that they can’t disappear entirely.
When Bo Burnham accepted the award for Best Directorial Debut at The National Board of Review Gala in 2019, he described Eighth Grade as an effort to represent “the kids who live their lives online.” Those who have been “mischaracterised as self-obsessed, narcissistic, [and] shallow” by a culture that forces them “to be conscious of themselves at every moment; to curate every aspect of themselves and present it to the world for judgement.” Kayla is constantly performing her digital self because to do so has, in a sense, become mandatory. Her social universe is structured by social media platforms, on which the construction of an online identity necessitates hyper-awareness of how one looks and behaves before the eye of a camera. Yet, as Jourdain Searles wrote for Bitch Media upon the film’s release, “it’s important for young women to see their lives as users and consumers of social media reflected as natural, well-meaning, and honest.” The main objective of Kayla’s social media use is to connect with people; it’s the medium that provides a safe enough barrier for her to securely put herself forward.
At their most effective, the digital artefacts in Eighth Grade depict Kayla as constantly in conversation with herself — with her own veneer, as well as with her changing identity across time. While the self-consciously detached persona of Kayla’s advice vlogs isn’t entirely ‘real’, it becomes a tool for her to negotiate the experience of growing up. After a harrowing series of events causes Kayla to cease making vlogs, she records a final video in which the veneer comes undone, admitting: “I can’t actually do any of that stuff.” As the Vlog Kayla persona breaks down, Burnham shows his protagonist finally reckoning with themes of authenticity and performance, two ideas inherent to any attempt at claiming a ‘self’ (online or offline).
In the film’s final act, we watch Kayla access a video message she recorded for herself at the beginning of middle school. The message begins, “Hey Kayla, it’s you, Kayla.” Immediately, the tone of the video reads more intimately, no longer produced for an abstract online public. Rather than show the message, Burnham focuses his camera on Kayla’s tormented reaction to her own image, superimposing pixelated footage of her playing as a child. The voice of younger Kayla rings out; questioning if she’ll have a boyfriend; wondering how ‘cool’ age will have made her. The overlaid close-ups of her childhood face reinforce this hopeful innocence, offset by present-day Kayla grappling with how she has and hasn’t fulfilled her own (potentially naïve) expectations. Whenever I watch this scene, I get caught up in the question of how we might do all the younger, former versions of ourselves proud. How do we cope with all the small wishes that go unfulfilled while we’re trying to make sure we grow up okay? As Kayla receives her own message, it becomes glaringly obvious both how much wiser she’s become, and how little is reliably different.
The film ends with another of these personalised video messages, recorded by present-day Kayla for high-school-graduate Kayla. Once again, the message is full of hope for her future, now accompanied by assurances that if she’s still not entirely as put together as she’d like in four years, that’s okay. “I can’t wait to be you,” the message signs off, coloured with a newfound sense of self-compassion. This message to the future isn’t characterised by the frequent it gets better mentality, so much as one that says: I’m rooting for you, and I’m going to be here, in video-form, if you ever need a reminder. All of these recorded identities exist in dialogue with one another, collectively anticipating the future as one grand, impending experience.
Though I mostly relegate my own use of Photo Booth to the past, I haven’t entirely stopped using the application, either. From just March of last year, there are videos of me drinking wine and dancing to ‘Started Out’ by Georgia in my bedroom, plus one of me doing a shoddy vocal warm up before a Zoom interview in July. As 2020 meant being forced to spend most of the year indoors, Photo Booth suddenly re-emerged for me as a way of archiving a self that was going largely unseen; a (mostly frivolous) way for my existence to be witnessed while the real life, public sphere seemed to be getting further and further way. Like Kayla, I’m still communicating with myself — supplementing memory, documenting growth, always dredging up old artefacts to find out how I have and haven’t changed.