Embracing the Naturalistic Awkwardness of ‘Eighth Grade’

Writer/director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher discuss making and living one of the year’s best films.

As Kayla stares into the camera and delivers a positive monologue about putting yourself out there—the latest entry in her barely watched YouTube vlog series—nervous energy is palpable. But more important, it feels real.

Eighth Grade is the story of Kayla’s bumpy road through the last days of middle school in the modern hyperconnected social-media age. What sets the film—which won the Golden Space Needle for Best Film at SIFF 2018—apart from its coming-of-age contemporaries and other films musing on the digital landscape is how authentic and grounded every moment feels. And that’s all thanks to a stunningly naturalistic performance by Elsie Fisher as Kayla (she won Best Actress at SIFF, and will get nominated for an Oscar). You believe every moment of shyness she bluffs away, the joy when she sings karaoke, the internal squirm when her overly caring dad Mark tries to talk to her at dinner, the glee when she makes a high-school friend, the heartstopping mental scramble when her crush notices her, and the difficulty of being performatively upbeat for social media when she’s down in the dumps.

Perhaps no one is unexpectedly better prepared to tell this sort of story than one of YouTube’s earliest stars. Eighth Grade marks the feature writing/directing debut of Bo Burnham, who parlayed his teenage Internet fame that into a successful career as a stand-up comedian, creating two of the most brilliant specials of the past 10 years (what. and Make Happy). While the movie looks fantastic and avoids going down tired paths of broad teenage characterization and mild technophobia, it’s the empathy Burnham pours into every frame of the film that really makes it special.

Before Eighth Grade opens this Thursday, July 19 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian, we caught up with Burnham and Fisher to discuss teenage self-awareness, gendered storytelling, and not being cast in school productions.

Did the process of making Eighth Grade change the way you use social media?

Elsie Fisher: For me it has. I used to use it in the same religious sense that most teenagers do. But I’ve learned to let myself be a little more chill with it.

Bo Burnham: And I’m checking social media more now to see what people are thinking of the movie.

EF: [Laughs] Yeah!

BB: It’s real hell. I’ve learned nothing. I’ve regressed.

How much of you is Kayla and how much of you her dad, Mark?

BB: Initially, I just saw my self in her totally, and then just sort of gave voice to the older, out-of-touch maleness of myself in Mark. But I mean, anxiety kind of makes you feel like a scared kid, and everyone kind of acts like eighth graders on the Internet. So it felt like a way to explore that.

I felt a connection to these young kids expressing myself on the Internet. And the boys tended to express themselves a little less deeply than the girls did: The girls talked about their anxieties, and the boys talked about their video-game collection.

When you started making the movie a few years ago, the prevailing culture wasn’t as focused on the need for female moviemakers to be making female-led movies. Now that it’s coming out in this era, have you felt any weird brushback in that regard?

BB: I haven’t felt that. I thought I was going to. I mean, I feel apprehensive about everything right now, but it hasn’t been the case.

I thought a lot of people were going to be like [angry tone] “I can’t believe a guy wrote this!” But the good thing is, it’s been a lot of people going like [cheery surprised tone] “I can’t believe a guy wrote this!”

I am very sensitive to that. And I, of course, want there to be more diverse voices not only in front of the camera, but behind it. But also like, I want women to be able to write young men’s stories. The greatest young male story of my generation was written by J.K. Rowling, you know?

It’s not like I took this position from anybody. I had the power to make a story—I got a little bit of momentum in my career, and this is the story I choose to tell. So if I hadn’t done it, there would just be one less story about a girl.

Elsie, was there anything in the script that you needed to correct Bo about? Like, “Oh, people my age don’t actually do this.”

EF: I made the comment after reading the script that, “No one uses Facebook.” But all in all, it was a very accurate depiction of a teenage girl. I never thought about it as Bo being a 27-year-old man writing a 13-year-old girl’s story, I saw it as someone writing a story about another person who has similar feelings who is just in a different predicament.

Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher hang out on the set of ‘Eighth Grade.’ Photo by Linda Kallerus/A24

Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher hang out on the set of ‘Eighth Grade.’ Photo by Linda Kallerus/A24

Were there scenes that popped in ways you didn’t envision when Elsie got to performing them?

BB: Like everything, almost. Definitely the extreme close-up of her face when she’s giving the nervous monologue was pretty incredible. I knew that I didn’t have to cut away from it, which is exciting.

The scene under the desk, when she’s talking to Aiden—which was a scene when I wrote the script and my girlfriend read it, she was like “No kid’s going to be able to do this. There’s no kid that’s going to be able to play everything that needs to be played in this scene: when she’s being a flirt, but also failing, and being nervous, and being transparent, and all these other things. I remember being on set the day she was doing it and freaking out. I was going to everyone in video village and being like, “Do you know how good this is?!? Do you realize how good this kid is?” And because of that, the whole first half of that scene is one take, when I never would’ve anticipated that being one take.

She over-delivered every time.

That scene really struck me because she’s doing all of this salacious barely secretive sneak flirting during an active-shooter drill at school … because active-shooter drills are so routine that none of the kids really care.

BB: Yeah, exactly. Part of the movie is how extreme the white noise of her background is. I mean, I had drills in school. I had already sort of explored the weird, sort of hypersexualized part of the culture in terms of what was around her—that’s just everywhere in terms of magazines, advertising, and the Internet—but it felt important to show that the world is also very violent, and take it for granted.

I also like any sort of drills in school where it’s like something incredibly serious, and yet stupid and embarrassing. It could be the most serious thing in the world, and kids will find a way to screw around during it.

Do you have a preferred method of screwing around in those situations, Elsie?

EF: I was always too afraid to screw around, just being honest. But if I ever did, I would just blurt out some witty remark that I’d immediately regret saying.

BB: I remember just laughing with my friends, but just in that fact that we knew we shouldn’t laugh, which made us laugh more.

EF: Oh my god, like if someone get in trouble… I aggressively snort when I laugh sometimes. So I will literally have to plug my nose, because I’m like this is wildly inappropriate.

One of my favorite aspects of the film is Kayla’s self-awareness. Like in the confessional videos, she’s laying out solutions to her own problems while not being oblivious to them. I think too often it’s portrayed that if someone has issues, they’re completely unaware of them.

BB: Sometimes the idea in coming-of-age movies is oh, they just need to become self-aware and come of age, when I’ve always believed that kids have access to the sort of big, deep, unresolved questions that they’ll struggle with for the rest of their life. Kayla has access to big things and bigs questions that will take an entire lifetime and then some to figure out. I’m still no better at addressing them than I was in seventh grade, sitting on the toilet because I’m nervous about my math homework, ya know?

The sort of inspirational posters—“Be Yourself,” “How to Be Yourself,” “How to Put Yourself Out There”—those are banal phrases. But to me, they’re as deep and meaningful as anything. The sort of Hallmark Store way that kids articulate the world is actually incredibly deep and meaningful.

I dunno. You’ve become more self-aware of your problems, don’t you think? But that doesn’t necessarily solve them just being self-aware.

EF: For sure. I mean, there are self-aware adults with problems. So being self-aware doesn’t solve anything. It just gives you the tools to help solve your problems.

BB: And naming them is a good step forward, but it’s not the solution.

Is there buzz around your school for Eighth Grade?

EF: People at school know about the movie, know that it’s coming out. People don’t care that much though.

BB: [Laughs]

EF: It’s funny. But they’re like, [deadpan] “OK, cool. … What else?” My friends are supportive and nice about it, and couple of them have come to screenings, but most people are like [deadpan] “Cool … back to Fortnite.” I don’t care, though. [Mock indignant] Who cares about their opinions! Screw the patriarchy!

[Laughs]

Were you able to do any acting in school this year?

EF: No, I wasn’t.

BB: [Giggles]

EF: I mean, I joined my theater program, but I didn’t even get cast in the play. I dunno…

BB: Mr. Donia. Thousand Oaks High School. Sucks at his job!

EF: I wanted to try while I had time, because this was before Sundance. But I don’t even know if I’m going to public school next year. I might try to get homeschooled.

BB: Way to go, Donia!

EF: Way to go! He ruined my whole experience.

He ruined all of public education for you.

BB: The entire infrastructure has fallen at Donia’s feet. I hope you’re happy!

EF: Oh, Donia.

What was the school play this year?

EF: It was written by his sister-in-law and it was called Love of a Pig, and it’s about a woman who is in love with an abusive guy. Yay!

BB: It’s actually about a shitty playwright making her brother-in-law stage it and get all of his anxiety out on children.

EF: [Laughs] Exactly!

Eighth Grade

Opens Thursday, July 19 | SIFF Cinema Egyptian | Rated R

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