Inside 'Eighth Grade,' the Quintessential Film About Growing Up in the Age of Instagram (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Photo by Linda Kallerus / Courtesy of A24
"People are surprised to find out I never talked about my own eighth grade experience with her," the comedian and now director, Bo Burnham, announces, gesturing towards Elsie Fisher, the star of his feature debut, Eighth Grade. The actress, 15, pulls up a chair next to Burnham, nodding her blonde head in agreement.
Any surprise is because Eighth Grade, in select theaters now, centers on a 13-year-old coming of age on the internet, and Burnham became famous on YouTube before becoming a YouTuber was a thing, uploading self-made videos in the aughts and amassing millions upon millions of views. While many first-time filmmakers channel themselves into an analogous avatar, he shrugs, "I did 10 years of doing a job talking about myself f**king nonstop, you know what I mean? I was desperate to [write] somebody that wasn't me and wasn't an exploration of my younger self."
Instead, Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day (Fisher) during her final week of middle school, as she navigates class superlatives and pool parties and begrudged heart-to-hearts with her single father (played by Josh Hamilton). All the while, Kayla records vlogs passing on what she believes to be sage advice -- "Being yourself is, like, not changing yourself to impress someone else" -- though she's lucky to see double digit views. Through Kayla, Burnham is able to explore himself, as he is now at 27. By making her a 13-year-old girl, he wasn't being nostalgic, wasn't able to rely on his own memories.
Hence, why he didn't discuss his own experiences as a teenager. It wasn't relevant, not when the feelings he wanted to explore are what he is still feeling. "I wasn't relating to her, like, Well, when I was your age... It was like, I feel nervous. Don't you feel nervous? What makes you nervous?" he explains. "It was more talking about feelings than talking about, like, I don't know, Pokémon cards or some sh*t."
Fisher, who is wearing jeans covered in graffiti writing, traces over the cursive letters as she listens to Burnham. Upon hearing mention of Pokémon, she suddenly lights up. "C'mon. Pikachu, am I right?" she grins. And thus commences a multiple minutes-long tangent between the two about all things pocket monsters, the Pokédex and Pokémon Snap on the N64.
So, maybe things haven't fundamentally changed since Burnham's teenage years more than a decade ago. They're just, as he puts it, "different to scale." "It's the same emotions -- you're worried about how other people see you, you're worried about what you're doing and you're worried about the gulf between who you think you could be and what you actually are -- but social media and the internet makes it so there's nowhere to escape now," he says. "You're never alone with your thoughts. Your social life is following you everywhere. The highs are higher. The lows are lower. You're more stimulated, you're more numb. You're more connected. You're lonelier." He cocks his head pensively, "Sometimes you remember that time as being stress-free, but that time was not stress-free."
Because he wasn't basing the script off his own lived experiences, Burnham had to do research. Thankfully, the entirety of the internet essentially exists as a living document of what it is to be a teenager in 2018. So, he watched their videos. He read their tweets. He soaked up everything they were posting about themselves online and put that truth into his movie. Equally important was finding his Kayla and casting an actor who was age appropriate. "When you even have a 16-year-old actress playing 13, they're thinking like, OK, I'll be young now," he says. "As opposed to when you're young, you're actually pretending to be old." In Fisher, whose biggest role until this point was voicing the youngest daughter, Agnes, in Despicable Me (the one who screams, "It's so fluffy, I'm going to die!!!"), he found a 13-year-old who was wonderfully unpolished yet completely in control. Although her audition, when they first met, skewed towards the former.
"I walked into the room and he stood up to shake my hand and I'm like, 'Tall,'" Fisher deadpans. (At six foot five inches, it is a thought most people have upon meeting Burnham.) "I was a little starstruck, because I had known about his comedy before the audition so I was like, Ooohh my god! This is a lot!"
"I remember she started reading the first scene and she went like, 'Hey guys!'" Burnham recalls of Fisher's reading of one of Kayla's YouTube videos. "She knocked the sides off of her foot and got super red and was like, ‘Sorry! Sorry!’ I'm like, 'This is perfect! Trust me, you're supposed to f**k up. This is about you f**king up. I don't want you to do anything perfectly.'"
It's an approach that lends an authenticity to the film. No matter how long it has been since you left that school year, whether you grew up in the age of Instagram or not, the truth he captures is visceral. Again, Burnham says that has less to do with capturing his feelings of being in middle school, but allowing his actors to be the authority, from specific feedback -- Fisher told him that no one uses Facebook anymore, "So then I put that in the script." -- to the individual truths that each brought to the project, while Burnham simply got out of their way.
"It's a different war. It's like if I was in World War I and I was making a World War II movie with a bunch of World War II vets," he says. "And I was going, What was the war like? It's like, there are veterans of the war you're portraying actually working for you! So, use them. It's a bit of a stretch, but--"
But middle school can feel like a war sometimes.
"It definitely does," Fisher sighs and then laughs.
"This is what I am, warts and all, and I don't really know what the f**k is going on. Do you? Help!"
Eighth Grade premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Fisher burst into tears in the theater as soon as the movie began playing. When it was over, she and Burnham were met with enthusiastic applause and, soon after, the first of many glowing reviews. It hadn't snowed since they'd arrived in Park City, Utah, but when they stepped outside that evening, Burnham remembers, "We walked out to literally fluffy, like, rom-com falling snow. That was actually just ridiculous."
"It was very magical," Fisher adds wistfully.
"It was too magical, where it felt like, eugh."
"It was perfect, too. Like, it was so perfect."
"Like a relief," Burnham says. Still the type of person to be worried about how he's perceived, about the gulf between the movie he wanted to make and the one he actually did, he smirks, "True relief. Like relief falling from the sky."
For Burnham, Eighth Grade allowed him a space to process those feelings, to watch his anxiety and nerves, his creativity and self-expression, play out through another. For Fisher, fresh off her freshman year of high school, it gave her a prism through which she could look back on her own recent eighth grade experience, as well as tools to use in future reflection. But as Burnham points out, "It didn't solve adolescence for you."
"It didn't!" she giggles. "No, I'm still struggling."
Then again, that was never the point of Eighth Grade. Eighth Grade will be there for you if you need it, existing to provide some kindness, to provide empathy, but not the secrets to life or a shortcut to self-realization. "The whole point, I think, of good art is to not present that which you are sure of, but present that with which you are struggling, you know? And sort of let the audience into the horizon of your thoughts. Not to go, This is what we figured out, but to go, like," Burnham throws his hands in the air, "This is what I am, warts and all, and I don't really know what the f**k is going on. Do you? Help!"