Spoilers for the film Eighth Grade below.
Countless films and TV shows have depicted the realities of sexual violence in graphic detail, yet one of the most powerful #MeToo moments on-screen this year features not an actual sexual assault but the implied threat of one. It’s a scene that viscerally conveys how an unwanted sexual encounter can turn everyday reality into a horror film when you are the one living through it.
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade follows the travails of an acne-covered, painfully awkward eighth-grade girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher), as she attempts to navigate her anxieties and insecurities in an era of total social-media immersion. The film has been rightly heralded for its accurate depiction of teenage life in 2018; unlike the glossy teens-played-by-20-somethings we’re used to seeing, Eighth Grade is a work of harrowing verisimilitude. Director Burnham, who himself found success as a comedian via YouTube about a decade ago, spent hours watching contemporary YouTube videos made by real middle-schoolers in order to understand their mind-set (he also cast a real eighth grader to play the lead role, which, as we saw in Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, can be used to powerful effect).
While there are plenty of movies about teenagers, Eighth Grade is one of the few films I’ve seen that really plunges viewers into the thick of a young girl’s psyche. At 13, small dramas can feel earth-shattering, and Burnham telegraphs the power of various social slights and victories with devastating precision. Eighth Grade is an extremely intimate work of filmmaking, and Burnham is especially good at using social media as a way to give audiences a window into Kayla’s inner life. Like most 13-year-olds today, Kayla spends the bulk of her day looking at her phone and computer screen, and we spend a lot of time looking at it with her, scrolling past the parties she wasn’t invited to and the cool girls who exclude her and the boys who take no notice of her. Burnham skillfully highlights the disjuncture between our real-world selves and the self we perform online. At home, in front of her webcam Kayla is an aspiring YouTube star who makes barely watched advice videos on topics like “confidence” and “being yourself”; at school, she is quiet and friendless, voted the grade’s “most silent” student.
Through Burnham’s interiority-driven filmmaking, things that may seem like minor dramas to an adult (like to Kayla’s poor long-suffering dad, played by Josh Hamilton) take on earth-shattering magnitude once we’re in Kayla’s shoes. That’s why, in the third act of the film, when Kayla’s social world starts to open up after she is taken under the wing of a friendly high schooler named Olivia (Emily Robinson), we are acutely aware of how much this potential new friendship means to her. When Olivia invites Kayla to the mall to hang out with her friends, the audience feels victorious — it’s a victory on par with the action hero vanishing the villain or the rom-com couple finally getting together, or any other traditional cinematic emotional high point. By that same token, the next scene, in which it all comes crashing down, is one of the most harrowing things I’ve seen all year. It plays out — as Burnham has put it — a lot “like a horror movie.”
After leaving the mall, Kayla and Olivia get a lift home from a friend of Olivia’s named Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), and Olivia gets dropped off first, leaving Kayla alone with this unfamiliar boy four years her senior. We keenly feel the stakes of this social situation for Kayla — Olivia’s friendship is everything Kayla has been craving, an opportunity to become the kind of person she gazes at so longingly on her Instagram feed. Riley is Olivia’s best friend, a cool older boy who holds the keys to her elusive social world. The stakes of making a good impression feel huge, immense, life-defining. Then, parked on a quiet street in the darkness, Riley opens the front door and joins Kayla in the back seat of the car. We all know what’s going to come next.
I am hard-pressed to remember a movie-theater experience — save some horror films — where the tension in the room was so thick and so unbearable. But here, the monster is not a hell demon named Paimon but just the boy next door, and the scene unfolds with horrifying familiarity. In the quiet darkness, Riley suggests a game of truth or dare. A visibly uncomfortable Kayla picks truth. He asks how far she has gone.
“I don’t know — I’d say like, third base … I mean, sorry, I meant second, I get second and third mixed up a lot,” Kayla lies, her body scrunched up tightly like a fist. “It’s okay if you haven’t done anything,” he demurs. Against Kayla’s clearly uncomfortable body language and verbal protestations, the game progresses to dares. He takes off his shirt, and then suggests Kayla do the same. Stammering, she tells him she’s not comfortable and asks him to leave her alone. Despite Kayla’s shyness and her desire for acceptance, she’s able to affirm her boundaries. It’s a surprising moment of heroism, one that reminds us of the strength that teen girls have.
“Stop saying you’re sorry,” he snaps, as Kayla apologizes. And then he returns to the front seat. The foreseen catastrophe does not happen, and the movie theater lets out a collective gasp of relief. He goes on to berate her. “Now you’re going to have your first hookup with some asshole at a party, and you’re not going to be good at it and he’s going to tell all his friends about it and you’re going to get made fun of and feel like shit, do you want that?” he spits venomously. “This was about you. I was trying to help you okay?”
“I know, I really appreciate it … sorry, it was just a lot at once,” Kayla stammers, feeling so very shamed and small. “I didn’t want to do that right now. Please don’t tell Olivia about this.” He drops her off in silence. Kayla walks in her house, slams the door, and sobs, crumpled in a ball next to her bed.
In the age of #MeToo, a lot of the words and ideas tossed around — for example, the oft-discussed notion of a sexual “power imbalance” — can begin to feel like abstractions, particularly for men who have never found themselves on the receiving end of such a situation. Yet given how deeply embedded we are in Kayla’s psyche throughout the film, this scene does a powerful job at conveying how frightening it is to find yourself in a sexually coercive situation, particularly at an impressionable age. Thankfully, Kayla is able to find the strength to turn down Riley’s advances. Yet for those who ask dismissively “why didn’t she just say no?” in response to various #MeToo stories, this scene paints a vivid picture of the many ways which social power can be wielded to manipulate and coerce girls into doing things they aren’t comfortable with, and how even when you do say no, it’s damaging enough to have been put in that situation in the first place. We also see how clear it should be to Riley that she was uncomfortable, if he was reading her body language (he’s not; he doesn’t care). And we see how he gaslights her into thinking she’s the problem, playing on her insecurities, her inexperience, her drive for belonging.
As a viewer, the relief when Riley doesn’t assault Kayla is immense. We know how even the most minor social interactions leave a deep mark on her impressionable teenage psyche; for him to force himself on her would be utterly cataclysmic. “I have people tell me all the time, ‘I’m so glad that scene didn’t go where I thought it was going to,’” Burnham tells USA Today. “But it doesn’t need to in order to be emotionally violating for her. I wanted to portray a moment that, when described after the fact, doesn’t sound like a big deal but actually is when you sit there and experience it with her … That scene takes a turn where her anxieties can’t just be dismissed by an adult as: ‘Oh, you’re in eighth grade. Nothing’s really happening to you.’ Significant things happen at (that age) that can really traumatize kids.”
Eighth Grade does an excellent job of conveying the life-ruining magnitude such an event would have on Kayla, at an age where pretty much everything already takes on outsized meaning. This, we see, is a formative time when Kayla is figuring out how to carry herself in the world — learning who she is, learning how men and women interact, things that will inform her throughout her life. The nature of one’s early sexual encounters leave an indelible mark, and we as an audience know just how important it is that Kayla said “no” with the firmness that she did. At the same time, we all know that experiences much worse than this happen all the time. So many girls Kayla’s age have their first sexual experiences forced upon them, and even for women who haven’t experienced assault, uncomfortable “Cat Person”–esque sexual encounters are pretty much an expected sexual rite of passage. Forget the corny sex-ed class PSAs; Eighth Grade should be required viewing for middle schoolers, because it conveys not just what sexual violation looks like but what it feels like — which is essential if we’re ever going to teach boys to treat girls (and men to treat women) with the humanity they deserve.