Part non-fiction, part horror, Eighth Grade captures what it is to be unsure of yourself.
Bo Burnham has made his living through the marvels of technology. He began his career on YouTube in 2006 and has since released his own comedy albums and stand-up specials. Instead of continuing on the path of a lifelong stand-up comedian, Burnham has turned to feature films. Specifically, Eighth Grade. It is the story of a middle school girl growing up in a time where social media is king. The big surprise is that while the times might’ve changed, the horrors of middle school remain.
Ahead of the release of Eighth Grade, Burnham provided some behind-the-scenes details.
Given his public-facing persona, it would’ve been easy for Burnham to make another comedy special and keep rolling along, but he wanted to attempt something new. It wasn’t going to be a television show because he imagined that would be “too daunting.” Instead, the answer was an independent film about middle school. “I want to make something self-contained like my shows but not with me,” he said. “Just work with other people again and maybe talk about what I was talking about [his performances often tackle subjects such as race, gender, sex, and other topics] except not with me because I was very tired of myself as a subject truly.”
This is also why in Eighth Grade the story focuses on Kayla (Elsie Fisher). It was hard to imagine why Burnham thought he was qualified to tell the story of a young girl, but he assured me he deferred to Elsie Fisher plenty. “ I like nostalgic movies about this age, but it being a girl was like I couldn’t project my own experience onto her. So I had to approach this fresh. I wanted it to be like I had to experience it with her. I had to sort of research and defer to her, defer to the kids because I didn’t know this,” he added. It was vital that Fisher bring herself into the movie since that is why we’ve seen success stories from films such as Wonder Woman and Lady Bird. Both films set a high-water mark for accurately showing female experiences.
Where Burnham could really associate with the character of Kayla was when it came to their shared anxieties. “I was having panic attacks backstage at the Shubert theater instead of in a bathroom before a pool party, but there are the same feelings really,” he said. Whether or not the movie would be therapeutic for everyone, he refused to say because that is up to each individual who watches the film. Eighth Grade isn’t only about the anxieties of performing, but rather social anxieties and how the Internet and culture is moving at such a pace to alienate people. Burnham might not be the age of an eighth grader now, but most of those same feelings can still rise up into his life. “anxiety makes me feel like a scared eighth grader. you know, um, and the culture itself feels like it’s existing in eighth-grade level,” he added. The core of the movie has Kayla trying to discover the type of person she wants to be, even with these fears in her life. Questions like “How to be yourself? How to be confident? and how do you call yourself out there? Those are questions I still ask myself,” said Burnham.
There has been a glut of high school stories. From fellow A24 release Lady Bird to Edge of Seventeen to John Hughes’ filmography, it is a topic that has been explored. Burnham believes that it is time to explore “the actual battleground.” “That’s when things are actually happening and you’re literally a child like you’re still actually a child,” he said. There just aren’t many serious middle school movies, although that is a trying time in a person’s life. Not only trying to understand yourself but the world around you. There is a sequence in the movie that shows the middle school students practicing an active shooter drill. When the scene was filmed it wasn’t intended to be political, but that is just the nature of the world we live in now. Children are asked to grow up much sooner.
Eighth Grade originally had a working title of The Coolest Girl in the World, which didn’t really make a lot of sense before seeing the movie. Once you see the experiences that Kayla has with her classmates, it all begins to click. Kayla is a quiet girl, who literally wins the class award for “most quiet.” Where she fails to fit in with her class during school, she is desperate to fit in with YouTube videos and Instagram photos taking up the bulk of her free time. When I asked Burnham about the Internet’s ability to make us feel lonely in an infinite space, he shared that “we’re hyper-connected and we’re lonely. We’re overstimulated, and we’re numb.” On one hand, you can be connected to everybody on the Internet and reach a larger audience than ever anticipated. On the other hand, the Internet can lead to extended feelings of loneliness.
How do you articulate the rush of feelings that come at that age? With an explosion of music. Eighth Grade isn’t subtle about its depiction of youth and neither is it delicate with its music. Burnham always envisioned “an electronic score that was warm and not mechanical.” Enter Anna Meredith. Meredith composed music for Eighth Grade that certainly adds a unique flair to the proceedings. Burnham wanted something different than a mandolin or music that makes the events happening seem small. Speaking of the music, Burnham said, “[the music] makes you feel what she’s feeling, which is intense.”
Much of what makes Eighth Grade so memorable is just how personal the film can be. This is a collaboration between a man who has grown up on the Internet and a young woman who is finding her place in this ever-changing world. One small touch that goes a long way into Kayla’s personal life is her personal sign-off she gives its YouTube video. She smiles at the camera, holds up a peace sign, and says “Gucci.” I asked Burnham who came up with that and he said Elsie did. “She would say that on set all the time. We recorded the videos at the end of the shoot and I wanted her to have a sign-off. I have no idea what it means, but it works. It registers as a weird little thing kids say. That’s all that matters.”