Some time between the library dance in The Breakfast Club and the opening credits of Freaks & Geeks, it became cool to be weird. In films and TV shows about teenagers, characters who are designated outsiders are almost always vindicated by being creative talents: they paint, write and generally turn out to be smarter, kinder and more special than their popular peers. What makes Eighth Grade – Bo Burnham’s debut film documenting a week in the life of a 13-year-old girl – so revelatory is how realistically ordinary its protagonist is.
The film is a deep-dive into the girl-world of Kayla (Elsie Fisher, in a brilliant breakthrough performance), achieved with excruciating accuracy over its runtime. But though it’s tempting to think that Eighth Grade is just Pretty In Pink through a Snapchat filter – there’s even a kindly, single dad, à la Harry Dean Stanton – the film’s genius is how it goes beyond high school stereotypes and cuts to the authentic heart of adolescent anxiety in 2019.
Kayla, with bad skin, poor posture and a hitched-too-high backpack, traverses through high school days completely unnoticed by anyone (importantly, she isn’t actively bullied. Just invisible). At night, her private moments are public, like any of ours now are: in her bedroom, she films motivational YouTube videos that no one watches, and scrolls through Instagram speed-liking her peers’ posts. She believes if she fakes confident, she will magically be confident; the moments where this imagined self and her actual interactions with others come unstuck are so real-feeling that they feel like memories. I defy anyone to watch the scene where she enters the popular girl’s birthday pool party, or the scene where she remains almost totally silent when hanging out with a group of slightly older students over a number of hours, without memories of their own, pricklingly awkward interactions at that age rising to the surface.
For Burnham, whose own profile rose via his YouTube stardom as a teenager, the film’s success is just a testament to his desire to meet 13-year-olds at their level, without adhering to the precepts of most coming-of-age narratives. When asked what he makes of critics’ tendency to review the daily burdens of Kayla’s life with language usually reserved for gory fright flicks (“harrowing”, “disquieting”, even “a site of mundane teen horror”), Burnham’s tone is that of a teenager at the dinner table saying, like, duh. “People that have turned an eye away from the reality of kids, find the reality of kids harrowing… it’s like, ‘Try living it!’”
Claire Marie Healy: How did you discover Elsie?
Bo Burnham: I first came across a video of her online being interviewed somewhere. I was just very taken by her and found her to be very close to the voice that I’d heard in my head, and then she was the second person in to audition, and we saw 100 people after, which... There was no one ever really close to her. She just understood the character very intimately, and every other kid – it felt like a confident kid pretending to be shy, and when she played it, it felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident. It wasn’t because she was shy and she wasn’t confident, it was because she just understood what Kayla was. Kayla was pretending to be someone. Every other kid felt like they were pretending to be Kayla, and she felt like she was being Kayla pretending to be someone else, just to navigate whatever she had to navigate in that moment.
CMH: That’s when you’re a teenage girl at that age and you’re faking your confidence at every turn – it’s so layered.
BB: If you watch a teen girl speak, there are many layers to their performance, when they talk you can tell that there’s a few things going on – they’re doing very complicated things, moment-to-moment.
“If you watch a teen girl speak, there are many layers to their performance, when they talk you can tell that there’s a few things going on – they’re doing very complicated things, moment-to-moment” – Bo Burnham
CMH: Obviously you’re in this interesting position where you’re a millennial, and you’re chronicling this other generation, the generation that has come afterwards. Do you associate yourself more with the adult figures in the film, or with the Gen-Zers?
BB: I do feel very much like Kayla. I also feel like her dad – an out-of-touch dude who has no idea what she’s going through and feels like an idiot – but no, I mostly feel like the kids. And that’s why I wanted to write it, I felt like a young kid on the internet that didn’t know what they were doing, and to me they feel like the young kids that are just kind of living a more intense version of my own life. But yeah, I can see myself in Kayla: it’s not a story about my daughter or younger sister, it’s a story about me.
CMH: For me, watching it – I mean I’m 27 – I found it so moving. It felt like me at that age. So even though there are very contemporary references obviously, as to the ways in which things have changed for 13-year-olds now, I felt those feelings.
BB: As much as things change there’s still a shared experience, you’re still 13, so there’s gonna definitely be a timelessness to that experience. The internet’s not going to change everything.
CMH: With Elsie, she doesn’t seem to be pursuing her weird interests online and finding community, she seems to be trying to be ‘in there’ with her popular peers online.
BB: Yeah, that might be true. Part of it was just that I found there were so many films about young characters where their only redeemable quality was like, ‘oh, they have an interest in photography, don’t worry!’ Like, in order for a young character to be interesting they have to secretly love the underground... Her interest is making these videos, that’s the interest that she has. It was just a part of her that I wasn’t totally interested in. We like to think that, when we were 13, ‘I was a musician-illustrator’. It’s like, ‘No you weren’t, you were nervous and weird’. It was just something that I wasn’t totally focused on, for this particular story. The interests are there: she has a Hamilton calendar, there’s a Rick and Morty background on her laptop: it’s just not what the movie’s interested in. But if you look you can catch little interests in the set decoration.
CMH: How did you go about achieving those details, which feel so specific to this generation?
BB: Even during the auditions, every kid that came in to audition I would ask them, ‘Put on these headphones and listen to a song off your phone’. And they would all listen to Hamilton without me telling them! So I knew there should definitely be Hamilton somewhere. Also, I always found kids’ bedrooms in movies to be very fake to me. It always felt like you had a blank room and then you decorated this room to perfectly reflect the character, and that, to me is not what a kid’s bedroom is. A 13-year-old’s bedroom is an eight-year-old’s bedroom meets a nine-year-old’s bedroom, meets a ten-year-old’s bedroom. You’re constantly just stacking shit on top of each other, and it’s also full of random shit that you were gonna throw away but didn’t, and by the time you’re 13, your room is just a mess of random things from your past, and the glow-in-the-dark stars you put up five years ago, and tried to tear off and didn’t. So it was a lot of talk with my production designer and the costume designer to just kind of get it right. Same thing with clothes: we’re trying to find clothes that don’t fit. No kid knows how to dress themselves, and that’s really the challenge of the movie across the board. How do you write dialogue for kids that can’t talk? How do you dress kids that can’t dress themselves? It was really important to perform that failure correctly.
“One of the struggles Kayla has is that she wishes that she was like one of those kids in the movies, and she doesn’t feel like that, which feels like part of the failure of her life – her life isn’t worthy of a movie” – Bo Burnham
CMH: This is something other movies can get wrong, this idea that if you’re setting a movie in 1998, then everything that the characters are surrounded by in that movie is from that year.
BB: Exactly, and they’re not just constantly referencing period-specific stuff at that time too, sometimes they were just talking about random stuff. It’s like the equivalent of when you do a 1980s themed party – it’s like, you know some people just wore jeans and a t-shirt in the 1980s too, right? [laughs]. Things become a parody of themselves very quickly.
CMH: Right. Still, I’m interested in the links between Eighth Grade and the more classic teen movie. Were you thinking of any particular movies about teens as a reference point when you were making this film?
BB: I wasn’t interested in a reference for this film, but I was definitely interested in it for Kayla. I think Kayla has seen these movies and Kayla is very conscious of these movies. I think one of the struggles she has is that she wishes that she was like one of those kids in the movies, and she doesn’t feel like that, which feels like part of the failure of her life – her life isn’t worthy of a movie. But, we weren’t really even trying to make a young adult movie. I mean, I know it’s going to be a coming-of-age movie, but our references were like ‘Oh it’s the pool party scene, we’re going to do Saving Private Ryan’. We were really trying to take her dread seriously, and not think that a story about a young girl is a genre – it’s not a genre to us, this movie can be about anything, this movie can be like Apollo 11. We wanted it just to feel massive and important and big.
CMH: That makes her feel so central to her own story, because everything does feel so big at that age.
BB: I mean, my real references were movies where kids felt like kids, you know? Stand By Me – that’s what I really loved, movies where kids were acting like kids, and that’s really what we were trying to emulate, the performance-style of those movies.
CMH: What you do think about these articles about the film which emphasise the sort of ‘harrowing’ nature of its look at adolescence, as if it’s really uncomfortable viewing? Because it’s also so much fun.
BB: Yeah, I mean it’s a little dramatic! It’s also like adolescence is harrowing, maybe people forgot about it. I think it’s only harrowing maybe next to a lot of things that glorify adolescence. We just tried to be truthful. Some people really do feel like that was a horror movie, and they cover their eyes and can’t look at the screen or anything, in that frame. As long as they’re feeling something, that’s all we’re interested in.
Eighth Grade is in UK cinemas from April 26, 2019.