“I would be skeptical as shit.” These are the words of Bo Burnham when discussing the skepticism that surrounded Eighth Grade when the film was first announced. Which amounted to no more than a blurb that read something like, “An eighth-grade girl navigates her way through junior high in a film written and directed by Bo Burnham.” For Burnham’s part, he was never not conscious of how absurd that might sound. And then back in January, it premiered at Sundance and, ever since, the reviews have been gushing. (As of this writing the film sits at 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. You can read our own gushing review of it here.)
The story follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an average eighth grader with a single father. The big difference here is this is 2018 and Eighth Grade tries to capture what it’s like to be in junior high right now and it’s pretty horrifying. Namely, the integration of social media: which takes what used to be long days at school trying to keep up and feeling left out and replaces that with the feeling of trying to keep up and being left out every waking moment.
What Burnham — a 27-year-old comic, actor, and musician who made a name for himself as a YouTuber — does here is pretty extraordinary for any filmmaker, much less a first-time director, and he says one of the big reasons he wanted his lead to be female is that way he wouldn’t project what his experiences were like then, which, like most of us, are already outdated. Like John Hughes in the ‘80s, Burnham captures what school is like for teenagers right now; only, as he’s quick to point out (and is correct), not in a John Hughes way. In other words, there’s an impulse for filmmakers to try and use Hughes’ approach, but for today’s kids that model is completely outdated.
Anyway, let’s let Burnam explain how he made a movie “about the internet” that he wanted to make (one which was later bought by A24 at Sundance). I met with him recently on an incredibly hot and humid New York afternoon to discuss the film.
Before people started seeing Eighth Grade, do you think it’s fair to say people were “skeptical”?
I would assume so. I would be skeptical.
“I am going to get into the mindset of an eighth-grade girl.”
I don’t know, like, “Weird, edgy, male comedian makes teenage female movie.” I’d be like, “What the fuck is that?” I would be skeptical as shit.
That should be on the poster.
Yeah, “I wasn’t sure about it either.”
So how did this happen? It is unusual.
I don’t know, I just wanted to write about the internet a little bit.
You could have done an eighth-grade boy?
Yeah, I don’t know, I’ve done standup for a long time and my standup and the stuff I talk about mostly tends to resonate more with girls than with boys.
Yeah. I think the type of anxiety I have is more common with girls than boys. I think. My mother and my sister have it. So the anecdotal evidence of my own life suggests that. Also, I wanted to write about this time period and girls just run deeper at 13 than boys do. And also I wanted to make it visceral and not remembered. And with it being a girl, I couldn’t project my own memories on it.
That’s an interesting point.
So my disconnect with her was twofold: I was never a 13-year-old girl and I was never a 13-year-old right now. So I approach it like what is happening now is new and different and I don’t know it. So I’m going to approach it like it’s World War II or something.
At times it plays like a horror movie.
Well, the idea of being in junior high with social media is absolutely terrifying.
It’s a lot.
I kept thinking, “How does anyone deal with this?”
Junior high is already horrifying.
Sure. But at least when I was in junior high I could go home after school and leave it behind. Now it seems nonstop.
Right, it follows you everywhere. It’s not any new emotions or new feelings; it’s just new degrees of the same feelings. So, that’s why it’s hopefully relatable and also new.
The idea of “I need a popular YouTube channel” as a junior high student is crazy.
And on top of it, your body is exploding and you have all of that shit going on, which is enough for anyone to deal with.
What did you have to do to figure out how social media works for someone that age, as opposed to how adults use it?
Just listen. They’re talking about themselves online all the time. You just have to trust the kids, and defer to the kids.
This movie also captures something really sweet about fathers. And, in this case, a single father.
Yeah, I’ve been lucky to have loving parents who were very attentive. It just felt right. I don’t know why a single father, but when I was writing it, it just felt right. I can look back and say, maybe because she doesn’t have an older female presence in the house because she didn’t have an older female presence when she wasn’t being written. So maybe it was a way to give voice to my own disconnect and limitations. I felt like a nervous kid on the internet and I also felt like an out of touch dude who had no idea what she was going through but had the best intentions for her.
Are you surprised by the positive reaction? Were you worried you’d get a fair shake? Because on paper, this could have gone a different way.
Yeah. Very, very worried. I wouldn’t say I was worried about getting a “fair shake,” because that makes me feel like I was worried about them treating me unfairly. I was just worried about if it was going to be received well and whether it was done well, too. Yeah, I was very worried most questions at the Q&A would be “how dare you?” I was worried about “I can’t believe a man wrote this,” as opposed to, “I can’t believe a man wrote this.”
That’s like the Seinfeld episode, “I didn’t think you’d show.”
Yeah! And Kate Erbland was kind of the first one and it was such a relief to see that – because it’s not like it didn’t occur to me the entire time, to be a man in charge of a young girl’s story.
Right. I remember after the Sundance premiere I was very interested in women’s opinions about this movie.
But I think what we would want, in female stories, for men to see themselves in women. Women, I think, have been seeing themselves in male characters all the time. Women should also be able to be conduits to the women condition. It shouldn’t just be Tom Hanks.
It would have been odd if you had cast Tom Hanks as the lead in this movie.
[Laughs] Exactly. But I see myself in her. And again, I’m very aware this is a very specific female experience to service. But also there’s the human experience, and she’s just as good as a conduit as anybody.
That’s a good point. At no point in this movie was I like, “If this were a boy I would understand it more.”
I think the way that I understood her was I believed I could understand her. That was almost part of it: believing I could see myself in her. And believing, yeah, you’re different than me, but you have access to all of my same questions and fears and thoughts as me.
You probably won’t like this comparison, but Eighth Grade felt like a modern John Hughes movie, in the sense that it’s the first movie I’ve watched about kids in school today and I’m like, “Oh, I think I get it.”
Oh, no, I like that comparison. The problem for me with a lot of these movies is the impulse is that in order to capture this generation, you try to capture this generation in the way John Hughes captured that generation.
True, but you didn’t do that.
But that means it was the right way at the time.
And filmmakers who grew up with his movies think, well, that’s how you do it.
And he tapped into the thing that existed at that time: How you fit into the ecosystem of the social hierarchy. There are cliques and all these things. I don’t think that exists anymore. I think kids’ relationships now are, oh, I’m alone in my own head and I have to square that with the world. Much less “I’m a jock!” That stuff kind of blurred and now it’s something a little stranger. I love John Hughes movies, but I see them as very good examples of that specific time.
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