Festival darling Eighth Grade is another critical, and now low-flying commercial, score for studio A24 as well as a massive coming out party for writer-director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fischer. Telling the story of Kayla, a perfectly average 13-year old girl with an unvisited YouTube channel and a quiet streak at school, as she navigates coming out of her shell. Awkward, tender, and, most of all, real, Eighth Grade is a triumphant piece of storytelling that lives and dies by its earnest depiction of the traumas and triumphs of middle school. Seconds of social interchange are filmed as if a horror movie, with Burnham’s film making for a horrifyingly transportative experience, pimples and all, in bringing one back to the woebegone young teenage angst.
From our review:
“A bighearted DM of awkwardness and warmth, Bo Burnham’s transportive comedic-drama debut Eighth Grade will return audiences to those pimple-pocked middle years; when being cool was synonymous with having no personality and anxiety over self-identity dominated every waking thought. The drama from A24 marries a tender coming-of-age saga with perfectly-layered cringe-comedy in a universal story of finding oneself in the digital age. Compelling use of musical cues and spirited, raw performances from Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton characterize this sweet, memorable story about the soul-crushing horror-show that is middle school.”
As part of the Seattle International Film Festival, I sat down with Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher to talk the prevalence of social media, being socially awkward well into adulthood, the power of music in film and today’s youth and why they might not be as bad off as we all think.
I wanted to first discuss music’s role in the film because you use it in such a compelling manner, the way you allow the dialogue to fall away and have the music inform the emotion of the scene. Can you talk about that approach?
Bo Burnham: I’ve always had a deep connection to music in film. It can be very directly emotional in a way that direct dialogue can not quite get to it. I really wanted to make the movie feel visceral and intense and reflect her sort of like pulmonary experience, reflect her heartrate. Music is a real way to inform the emotional intensity of what’s going on. That’s the hope. These scenes may feel like a cute little story but to her it’s not cute, it’s intense and it’s big and that seemed like the easiest way to express that.
There’s a universality to Kayla’s story and it’s very much planted in 2018 and social media and devices but communicates that timeless awkwardness of being 13 and how horrible that is. Obviously you’re a young guy but you didn’t have smart phones when you yourself were 13 so can you discuss using that as the framework for your story.
BB: I truly believe that everyone is deeply awkward. Yeah, 13-year-olds are really awkward but if you open your ears to adult conversations, they’re typically extremely awkward as well. I just wanted to talk about being anxious and anxiety and I feel that for everyone a lot of anxiety is linked to the internet and our phones and how we see and treat ourselves in life. That was a way into it. It wasn’t like I wanted to talk about what it means to be 13 but what it means to be alive right now. Through a 13 year old, it becomes very pure and you don’t get sidetracked with all this overcomplicated adult stuff like taxes and relationships, or not in an adult way. The internet kind of plays and can be the center of the story for her emotionally.
Elsie Fisher: Everyone is awkward. I’m awkward right now.
What did you connect with with Kayla as a character and how did you bring your own being awkward at 13 experience to this?
EF: I had just gotten out of eighth grade and later that summer we started filming. It was about taking that experience, which was such a weird time. We’re both just weirdos, I think. To me personally, I never saw myself as a generic teen, a stereotype, I just was a weird person and seeing Kayla, I thought, “Oh, everyone is a weird person.” So it was a lot of realizing that we’re all weird. We’re not the same person. I wouldn’t say I’m more mature but more self-aware, I guess. We have a lot of similar interests, a lot of hers were culled from mine.
BB: You feel sometimes that when teenagers play teens, they’re 2 years older than what they’re playing so they’re looking back and playing on it, but she was looking out into it.
EF: I was very much already in that.
BB: You don’t have to be able to articulate what you think you are right now, just be it.
So did the character change when you cast her?
BB: Sure, it became her but it wasn’t overly specific so that it couldn’t hold you. I think there was space within the character so she could step in and the character to become that thing. It was a pretty good mash right away, it fit pretty naturally and there wasn’t anything that felt ridiculous for you to do that had to change.
EF: She felt very right for me.
The movie has a really good heart to it and is very good natured. Even the mean girls at the schools don’t feel like antagonists, they’re just trapped in their own little cycles. But one thing that stuck out to me is if there was a villain in this movie it almost seems to be social media and how much it dominates these characters lives. I feel genuinely bad for Kayla, and by extension her generation, who spend so much time mindlessly scrolling through feeds and stuff. There is a scary element to that, where it’s almost zombifying teens.
BB: I don’t want to totally demonize it because it is her snorkel to the world and her outlet for expressing herself and connecting but I think I would go a little broader to the whole culture that imposes these weird narrative restrictions for kids. They have to think of themselves narratively and think of their lives as a story that they’re living and they have to think of themselves as almost a main character. That’s a really tough thing and I think kids don’t forgive themselves very often. They’re hyperconnected but they’re lonely. They’re overstimulated but they’re numb. That seems to be what’s happening to me. I wanted to portray, and not feel like I’m teaching anybody, just present something that both of us feel unresolved about the internet. I don’t get the internet. I don’t know if it’s good or bad or where it’s going. We didn’t want to make a movie that was a lesson plan or a TED Talk but hopefully give the sort of raw information that you can leave the theater and be thinking about that stuff. Some people might leave and think they’re so glad she has her YouTube channel while others think she should throw her phone in the ocean. Neither one is wrong and we don’t really want to take a stance other than portraying what it feels like.
Can you imagine how your teen life would have been different had you been in eighth grade and had these technologies constantly infiltrate your life?
BB: Yeah, I know where I am now and having had them infiltrate me when I was 17, 18, I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I was 13. Like what I would have done and what I would have dedicated myself to at that time… I don’t know. Talking to a lot of kids, they do have a strength and awareness and take the thing less seriously than we think they do, which is actually really good. I was talking to eighth graders a couple weeks ago to interview some kids and asked, “Are you all trying to get famous?” and they’re like, “No, we’re just posting funny stuff. We don’t really care.” Thank god. I think 30 year-olds behave weirder and grosser on the internet than the kids do. Kids are just having fun, as they should. It’s bad but it’s not as bad as we think it is.
The comedy in this movie can only be described as cringe-tastic. It’s so deeply uncomfortable. Can you talk about that comedic approach and trying to make your audience squirm?
BB: I love cringing and I think it’s a very empathetic feeling. If you cringe for someone, it means you’re feeling for them. But the approach isn’t to cringe, it’s more if you portray this honestly, you’re going to cringe. Middle school isn’t funny in a way where you look back and think, “That was so clever” it’s all just really embarrassing cuz you’re out of your depth. I also just think that, and I’m a fan of that. There’s adult cringe-comedy that feels honest because I think life is uncomfortable and small social situations can be really uncomfortable and people can be really awkward to each other. The movie is just trying to get you to feel what she is feeling in any moment and sometimes that’s cringing awkward, sometimes that’s cringy horrified, sometimes that’s bored. The approach is really just trying to be honest and an honest approach to comedy. Not to make this moment funny but let it actually play out how it actually would.
Going off of that, the dialogue and how the script is written, it doesn’t feel like you, a 27 year-old, is writing your inner monologue that runs through her where she’s this mini Aaron Sorkin spouting off these witticisms. She’s very much bumbling and her thoughts are jumbled, which is refreshing because in so many movies like this we’re subject to the precocious teen. In the writing process, how did you hop so seamlessly into that mindset?
BB: It was watching videos of girls online and just transcribing, literally transcribing, the “uhs” and the “likes”. Like can I read this on the page and have it sound like it sounded there. So that was the first approach. What attracted me to the subject matter was how they articulated themselves and how they failed to articulate themselves. Most of the meaning of the movie is in that for me. When people write young people as these really articulate people who can easily articulate their experience, and they have no friends and are in a bad social situation but sit at home and say, “I’m gonna tell you the story about I, the prototypical pimple-faced nerdy teen, became the paragon of my social structure.” That to me robs it. The meaning of being young is not making friends but learning how to think and how to articulate yourself and that’s a huge part of the experience we want to portray. She wants to sound like those kids and you can tell she’s watched those movies and wanting to sound like that. We all are. But we don’t. No one does. Ever. And if we do, it’s because we rehearsed it and we’re lying. No one is as cool as they want to be. So it’s about making a movie about someone who wishes she was as cool as all the girls in the movies she watched. Which a lot of girls who came in to audition played it like the cool girls in the movie. It was just like “No. That’s not the point of it.”
One of the feelings that the movie really captures is that these small interactions can feel so momentous for a young person. Like your dad giving you a weird look. Were there any specific experiences in either of your lives that you took and put into this – this one tiny thing that now seems so inconsequential but at the time felt like everything?
BB: Were you ever annoyed at your dad?
EF: No, never [sarcastically]. I don’t know. My relationship with my own father was very similar to Kayla and hers so it was an easy comparison.
BB: It is just the way social anxiety feels and I think it applies to adults too. Adults get home and your heart was pounding because of some where interactions you had at the grocery store where someone handed you a receipt or said “Have a good flight” and you said “You too” and walked away embarrassed? That was the approach and having her be 13 allowed it to be really big. I do think the drama of our lives tend to play out in very, very small moments but they’re still significant to us. We’re not all wandering around saving babies from fires and going to funerals. But that is exactly right. I also remember that age and tiny, tiny things. A girl I had a crush on, I was at something and I had a Mountain Dew with a straw and she said, “Can I have some?” and she took it and drank from the straw and handed it back to me and I was like, we just both put our mouth on this straw. It was the most electric moment of my entire life. So that was the idea. Can you tell a movie on that scale? Rather than have her at the stage at the end of the movie and have the whole school laughing at her or applauding her. The victories and the failures can be tiny.
What’s next for you? This is a pretty triumphant debut you’ve had…
BB: I’m gonna get a big garland of roses and have a parade. No, just chilling and get back to writing and having some time alone.
Do you see yourself continuing to do writing and directing?
BB: I’ll probably do another one.
Do you see yourself acting in your own features?
BB: I love acting but I don’t think in my own. I think I need that distance. I tend not to write parts for myself but I love to act in other people’s things.
How about you Elsie? You’re 15 now, you’re touring around cities with your hit movie; this much be a pretty crazy experience.
EF: Yeah! I’m done with Freshman year and onto Sophomore year, just auditioning around and stuff. It’s the greatest. I like traveling a lot and I like this movie a lot and he [gestures to Bo] is ok.