‘Eighth Grade’ Breakthrough Elsie Fisher Will Get Musical in ‘The Shaggs’

Elsie Fisher, the excellent breakout star of Bo Burnham’s narrative feature film debut, Eighth Grade, may only have a few onscreen credits to her name so far. That said, if her recent role choices are of any indication, she is certainly primed to keep bucking expectations. We’re totally welcoming it.

Fisher’s career is currently boosted with the fresh news of her next starring vehicle. As announced by The Hollywood Reporter, she will topline The Shaggs, a musical movie based on the true story of the infamous band of the same name.

The Shaggs will recount the lives of three “musically inept” young women — Helen, Betty, and Dot Wiggin — and their journey toward unexpected stardom. Fame truly snuck up on them after the fact, because during the band’s original tenure between 1968 and 1975, nobody thought that The Shaggs and their bizarrely composed pop songs were especially good.

Directed by Ken Kwapis (A Walk in the Woods) from a screenplay by Joy Gregory (Felicity), the film draws inspiration from Susan Orlean’s feature article titled Meet the Shaggs, which was published by the New Yorker in the wake of RCA Victor’s 1999 re-release of the band’s sole studio recording, “Philosophy of the World.” Gregory had previously transposed The Shaggs’ story into an off-Broadway stage production.

Orlean’s piece chronicles the short and complex life cycle of a band that essentially began as a dogged idea by the women’s father, Austin, who also acted as their manager. In their small, sleepy hometown of Fremont, New Hampshire, the Wiggin sisters practiced their craft daily. To a point, Orlean notes, that they didn’t really have typical academic or social lives outside of the project (unless they engaged in such activities in secret).

The long unending hours of musical exercise didn’t necessarily improve their aural talents for mainstream ears, nor were their efforts enough for their father, who continued to be a problematic influence on their lives. The Shaggs’ time onstage, which mostly consisted of weekly performances at the Fremont town hall, was often met with a variety of responses. Unfortunately, much of this involved heckling.

Orlean is careful in characterizing the almost-myth that could potentially accompany The Shaggs’ early years, highlighting points of conflict throughout her piece. Their resurgence seemed baffling in 1999. Nonetheless, now a cult act, The Shaggs — sans Helen, as she passed away in 2006 — reunited for one “unsettling, beautiful, [and] eerie” show as recently as 2017.

For the time being, there is no word on which Wiggin sister Fisher going to portray in The Shaggs. Her actual age does make me think she’ll play Betty, the youngest sister of the troupe and one of the guitarists. Regardless, a part in such a potentially off-beat movie suits Fisher just fine, anyway.

Even prior to her leading lady breakthrough, Fisher got a solid start in the film industry via animation. In 2009, she provided English dubbed vocals for the lead role in the first season of Russian series Masha and the Bear. On the big screen, Fisher nabbed a notable opportunity in Steve Carell’s Despicable Me series and voiced his protagonist’s adopted daughter Agnes.

In the realm of live-action, Fisher’s big-screen debut eventually happened in the coming-of-age film Dirty Girl before she featured in Niki Caro’s sports drama McFarland, USA. However, she finally gets to thoroughly prove her mettle in her first starring role.

We’ve been waiting on news of Fisher’s next noteworthy project from the moment she absolutely swept the world off its feet as Kayla Day in Eighth Grade. Within just a 94 minute runtime, the film certainly soars due in part to Burnham’s economical but emotion-driven directing technique. An erstwhile YouTuber himself, Burnham’s clear understanding of the ins and outs of online culture is paramount to the naturalism that exudes throughout Eighth Grade. But the real narrative tension comes from the movie’s perceptive yet non-judgemental presentation of Kayla’s flawed adolescent experience.

Burnham’s tactic to tune in on Eighth Grade‘s protagonist even through her most discomfiting, challenging, and cringe-worthy moments don’t feel gratuitous, and they honestly could have only worked because of Fisher. She is a wonderfully intuitive actress, nailing Kayla’s anxious undertones and sheer vulnerability. Fisher effortlessly embodies Kayla’s changeable traits throughout the film, but above all, she comes across like an open wound that quietly aches and resonates.

Fisher’s rawness would actually be vital to The Shaggs, a film that aims to unravel the complicated knots of such a controversially popular band. Clearly, from both Orlean’s feature and coverage of the band’s 21st-century reunion, none of the Wiggin women walked away unscathed from their time as musicians together. Dot would go on to perform music on her own terms, but Betty has lost all desire to be onstage. Orlean frankly states it best in her article: “For the Wiggins, music was never simple and carefree, and it still isn’t.”

Hearing The Shaggs’ music for the first time made me feel strangely buoyant in response to its blatantly imperfect quality. Yet, the thorniest elements of their backstory definitely sober my stance up considerably. Hence, all involved in The Shaggs need to know how to finetune a sense of balance between both. Thankfully, Fisher is the least of my concerns in that regard. We can expect great things from her.

Sheryl Oh: @sherhorowitz Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Particularly loves writing stuff and things with a feminist bent here at Film School Rejects.