Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is a revelation. It’s a stylish portrait of a certain moment in a certain person’s life in a certain era, except it’s relatively timeless. The anxieties are palpable, the frustrations a given, and the drama unfolds naturally. It’s the kind of coming-of-age story that transcends the limitations of Statement Cinema, becoming less about themes and more about feelings, even if the film technically nails both.
Led by Elsie Fisher, whose turn as eighth-grader Kayla Day is both hilarious and heartbreaking for its youthful exuberance and naïveté, Eighth Grade almost feels like a documentary. Burnham, who, like Kayla, found a similar escape on YouTube over a decade ago as a budding, energetic comic, offers an unadulterated experience that avoids any kind of commentary that might puncture the narrative as a whole.
Rare is a debut feature this confident and realized: From Anna Meredith’s enigmatic score to Burnham’s super-detailed screenplay, Eighth Grade oozes with the early charms of a young auteur who not only has much to say, but knows how to say it. With that in mind, we spoke to Burnham to get his perspective on the film, namely the anxieties that came from telling a young girl’s story and the ways he wasn’t at all like Kayla growing up.
How much of Eighth Grade is autobiographical? How much of you did you put in there, and why do you think self-documentation speaks to you?
Yeah, great question. There are probably things in there I don’t realize, but it feels more currently autobiographical to me than it was to me when I was younger, that age. I feel most connected to her [Kayla] now, most similar to her now. Just in terms of being nervous. My anxiety came later in life, and hers is obviously happening earlier.
Self-documentation just feels like the name of the game now. The first part of my career felt like something that was so unique to me, and there was this huge pressure to express it. And the more I did that the more it seemed that a lot of people related, even people whose job wasn’t to self-document. It’s obviously because this whole thing with the internet and social media is causing a lot of people to have to self-document. And it’s turning your life and your emotions and your social life and your view of yourself into content, self-commodifying that stuff.
I think the old narrative, which was probably true, was that the thing that forces our life to be commodified is this big cultural force – like big corporations. It’s now feeling very grassroots and very inside out. And that’s a bummer where it feels like the culture of celebrity is being played out individually, and it’s not being imposed by, say, magazines. But I guess it reached so far deep into our belief that now there’s this impulse to be seen, or the idea that you’re only worth anything if you’re seen.
And I think Kayla is like an inverse Zach Stone in a way, certainly tonally. That’s someone who’s desperate to be seen because he wants the attention. And this is someone who I think feels like it’s a weird culture to be an introvert in.
The thing I really love about the film is that it never devolves into a shame play on the digital age. It would have been so easy to be like, “Look at these kids on their cell phones!” How hard was it not to be that way, though?
For me, the internet means something, so I felt the internet being disrespected in other things. It’s like, you’re not treating it in the way it deserves to be treated. I’m very repulsed by and allergic to that side of it. That wasn’t hard. Yeah, we’ve all seen the scene of the girl on the phone ignoring her parent, but can we arrive at that scene at minute 20 and have enough context to actually feel like, “Dad, shut the fuck up.” And have context to know she’s going through something.
Part of the impulse of the script comes from when I was at a mall and saw a young girl by a fountain taking selfies, and she’d be snapping into happy and then looking down at her phone, and I felt like, oh, the cultural conversation right now about this generation is looking at her Instagram and looking at this self-obsessed person who feels like she needs to post a picture at the mall.
But if you actually observe her the way a film would, you see that this is just a real human that’s flawed and sad and wanting love and immortalizing herself, or whatever, in her falsest moment. These kids are obviously just falling into whatever is available to them. But I’m glad it doesn’t come off as preachy. I have a deep respect and relationship with the internet, so it was defensive on my own behalf as much as it was on theirs.
It just reminds me of something like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, where he doesn’t try to make any sweeping statements. He just puts it out there, and we glean from it. Even in your movie, there’s that discussion about Snapchat at the mall between the two kids. I thought that was so stunning because it’s such a nuanced discussion.
And it’s also being had by a shithead 18-year-old high school kid, too. It’s its own conversation but also taken with a grain of salt. I have a lot of Ed in me. I’ll be like him sometimes where I’m like, “What are you talking about? I’m just thinking shit out loud!” And it’s like, you’re hurting people’s feelings. You can’t just do that. I think that’s a very specific young male thing to think you’re having a deep conversation, but you’re actually being totally insufferable.
But I think that’s a true feeling. I’m 27 but I sometimes feel closer to a 40-year-old than a 23-year-old. I do think that gaps are shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. And just the landmarks that separate generations – like Vietnam – and now it’s just like Instagram or Snapchat, bla, bla, bla. Sometimes even a Snapchat update will make things different.
But I didn’t have Snapchat then. If I had Snapchat in high school, I don’t know what I would’ve done other than try to be on Snapchat. In middle school? Who knows what I would’ve done.
I had LiveJournal back in high school, and now I think about what it would have been like if I had Facebook. It’s so different.
And Facebook doesn’t happen anymore. Kids aren’t on Facebook. Facebook was written into the script, and then I talked to the kids, and they were like, “We’re not on Facebook.” So that line where Kennedy is like, “Nobody uses Facebook anymore” was actually the kids telling me that.
There’s such a big difference. MySpace and Facebook are like make your own website, so it’s still kinda kitschy. But Instagram and Twitter, which kids have now, is literally what you look like and what you think. The media engages with them in primal ways now. They’re watching the national conversation play out on these mediums.
It’s both terrifying and liberating. Everyone is getting their voice out, but it’s also impossible to hear what’s going on.
Twitter’s a perfect example. Social movements gaining ground they never would have, visibility for people who don’t have visibility, and the deterioration of the national conversation. And can anything ever be solved on this thing that’s inherently simplifying everything?
It’s how I feel about the internet on the micro and macro scales. It’s personally good and bad and also good and bad in a larger context. It’s this big, blank, chaotic thing that can sort of take on anything. It could kill the world or solve the world.
You’ve always been incredibly intuitive in all your work, but there was another edge to you on 2016’s Make Happy. You came from another place. It felt like the last few years you had been doing some kind of soul-searching and gained a different kind of self-awareness. Did that help you write this script?
It was sort of in two parts. One was where I learned how to ingrain the thoughts I had into something presentable that could entertain people. Also, I’ve been struggling with anxiety for a while, and I came to realize that the only way out for me is to express this. If I’m feeling really anxious on stage, I just have to talk about it and make the show about being nervous. That’s the only way I can do it.
So, that was what that choice was but also just getting better at being able to make it presentable. At the end of the day, I don’t see this stuff as just base expression. I’m trying to connect with people, and I want them to sit down and have a good time and be engaged. I’ve always been having those thoughts, but it took a while to realize that I want my work to be at the horizon of my thoughts.
I want to express the things I haven’t resolved and am currently struggling with. When I was younger, it was more about the things that I had figured out. At 19, it was like, “God doesn’t exist!” Now, I’m back to going to church once in a while. It wasn’t like my work was getting more personal, so I was getting more personal. No … I was always personal, but I finally learned how to put that into the work.
Was there any anxiety going into this film that your voice wouldn’t be accepted to tell this particular story?
It definitely built up in me going into Sundance where I felt very worried. But the response across the board hasn’t been that, which is very, very nice. I think people hopefully see that she [Kayla] is treated with respect. For the movie to be the way that it was, it had to have been collaborative. But I was very aware of that the entire time in terms of navigating the storytelling. I was very aware that I was a man telling a young girl’s story.
But I didn’t take this job from somebody. I made this job. Me not directing would only mean that there was one less story about a girl. I’m adding a story as opposed to … And again, I would love to see a woman’s story about a 13-year-old boy. My generation’s story of a boy is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. The byproduct of incredible female storytellers and directors telling female stories will be inspiring men, which is what happened to me.
I was inspired by Marisa Silver, Andrea Arnold, and Julia Ducournau. And I tend to connect most to stories I don’t align with demographically. That feeling of, “Oh, I am you, but I’m not you” is really powerful to me. That’s the magic of art to me – to be able to realize the commonality between us.
What was your favorite album, film, and book in eighth grade?
It was probably sixth or eighth grade when my favorite album was Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” [A Little Bit of Mambo]. I am like the only person on the Earth who knows the words to other Lou Bega songs.
For movies, it was probably like Shawshank or something. My father always liked Con Air, so I was always watching Con Air. But I remember around that time I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time. The acting in that movie. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The acting felt so alive and beautiful, so while I probably didn’t get it yet, that was my beginning of falling in love with movies.
TV was probably like Saved by the Bell. A lot of Saved by the Bell in the morning.
Kayla has her big, confident moment in this movie. Looking back at eighth grade, do you remember having a Kayla moment?
My problem is I probably had too much confidence. I was like a hammy loser in eighth grade. It was sophomore year when I sort of turned in on myself and got more interior. I was running around with a lot of confidence before that. I think that boys tend to have a little bit of that. But it wasn’t really until sophomore year when puberty hit me like a truck that I turned inward.
Now that you’re done with your first movie, are there any other genres you want to try?
I don’t really even know what genre this is. I guess it’s like YA or coming of age, but aren’t all movies coming of age? But I’m interested in … I like feeling something with someone, and that can lead you anywhere. In this movie, I think that leads you to sometimes feel happy or sad or scared.
So, that’s my genre if there is one: really trying to feel along with someone.