“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to be female is that way he wouldn’t project what his experiences were like then, which, like most of us, are already outdated.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words, there’s an impulse for filmmakers to try and use Hughes’ approach, but for today’s kids that model is completely outdated.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.