Watching Bo Burnham’s debut feature, Eighth Grade, evokes the same feeling of hearing your voice on a recording—it exposes you and cuts to your core. The film follows 13-year-old Kayla, played by a pitch-perfect Elsie Fisher, throughout her last week of middle school. Kayla’s a pimple-prone girl so shy she wins the “most quiet” superlative at her school’s assembly. (Has any award ever been so cruel?)
But she finds her community on YouTube, where she makes little-seen videos. In them, she muses about typical adolescent concerns—”putting yourself out there” and “how to be your true self”—and becomes the fullest version of herself. She has a false bravado, the kind I remember employing as a tween hiding behind my parent’s desktop screen on Myspace. Kayla ends each video with the catchphrase, “Gucci!” in the same way I made my AOL greeting “hey sexxi biatch!” because, at the time, it felt like a “cool” thing to do.
With the threat of high school looming, Kayla decides to take some of that online confidence IRL. She approaches her crush during a fire drill and tells him she sends nudes. She forces herself to attend a popular girl’s pool party, despite knowing she’ll be miserable there. While home alone she practices giving a blowjob on a banana.
I had to cover my eyes during some these scenes because they were so relatable. When I was Kayla’s age I told boys lies to impress them, there were so many parties I had to psych myself up to go to—parties I still have to psych myself up to go to—and I’ll admit it, I tried out the banana trick.
But there was no scene more real or painful for me in the film than when a high school boy, Riley, offers Kayla a ride home. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Riley’s a floppy haired bro who’s all ribcage and skinny limbs; he wears a flat-topped hat and you just know he has weed in his glove box. After Riley drops off the other passengers in the car, he tells Kayla that it’s pretty weird he’s all the way up in the front and she’s in the backseat. How can they get a chance to talk? So he pulls the car over, joins her in the back, and asks Kayla to play truth or dare.
Shocked, Kayla lets out a meek “okay” that sounds like it was caught in her throat. She picks truth to start, and when Riley asks her how far she’s gone, she can’t even look up from her lap. Things escalate when Riley dares Kayla to take her shirt off, and she compulsively shouts out “No!” She’s clearly been holding it in for the duration of the game.
Riley immediately stops, gets back in the front seat, and drives her home. He doesn’t push Kayla to keep playing the game, or try any other tactics to hook up. He gets that nothing’s going to happen, but that doesn’t mean he stops manipulating her. As they drive off he chastises her, saying, “Now you’re going to have your first hook up at a party with some asshole, and you’re not going to be good at it. He’s going to tell all of his friends about it, and you’re going to get made fun of and feel like shit. Do you want that? This was about you, I was trying to help you, OK?” Throughout the game, and the subsequent ride home, Kayla tells Riley she’s sorry eight times. How many times does he apologize? Zero.
That subtle manipulation—boys trying to get me to do something I wasn’t ready to do—was something I encountered many times in my adolescence. There’s the time two boys offered me a shot of vodka and then started simultaneously feeling me up. When I looked uncomfortable they told me to relax because they were clearly just playing around. Or the time I stuck my hand down an older guy’s pants during a group game of Truth or Dare and blurted out that it was “hairy.” The whole group laughed; when I turned red, they all told me to chill. It’s just a game. In those moments I always thought I was the uncool one. I was just so desperate for a boy to pay attention to me that I was willing to fight through my apprehensions and do what they wanted. It wasn’t until much later that I realized they could tell how much I wanted their approval and were taking advantage of that.
Kayla and I aren’t alone in this. When I started speaking with friends about their murky first encounters with the opposite sex, they all had stories to tell. Morgan, a grad student from Washington, told me, “The boy I had a crush on convinced me to send him naked pictures of myself throughout the year. If he hadn’t received one recently, he blatantly ignored me at school and would walk past me as if I didn’t exist. If I had sent one, he made a huge deal of telling his friends how ‘cute’ I was.”
Or Shira, a teacher in California, who said, “A guy really pressured me to let him finger me. I’d never done it before and was so nervous, but I decided I trusted him. Once he started he laughed at me, telling me I should, ‘At least trim down there every once in a while.'” And Blake, a New York-based editor, who shared that, “Boys would always ask, ‘How far have you gone?’ Not wanting to sound uncool I felt pressured to lie and exaggerate my experience so I wouldn’t be overlooked.”
Although Kayla had the courage to stop Riley when she no longer felt comfortable, that doesn’t mean she wasn’t taken advantage of. She was alone in the car, Riley is many years older than her, and her body language was very clear. Kayla was desperate for his approval—and his attention—and Riley traded on that currency to try to “get some.” It’s not an assault, but it is a boy directly wielding his power over a vulnerable girl, something we’ve discussed time and time again in the #metoo movement. And unfortunately, it’s a common experience in girlhood. It’s time we start having these conversations even earlier, with both boys and girls, about power and consent—before it’s too late.
Eighth Grade is in theaters everywhere on Friday, July 13
Samantha Leach is an assistant editor at Glamour.