Writer/director Bo Burnham‘s feature debut Eighth Grade is one of the most critically acclaimed films of the summer, and many have already called it a teen classic.
In a head-turning breakout performance, Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, an everyday 13-year-old girl navigating her way through the home stretch of junior high. She attends a pool party, she makes some new friends and she goes to the mall. That’s pretty much it. Yet Eighth Grade is equal parts hilarious and downright riveting, because the filmmaker and star have captured what it’s like to be this age—how meaningful and intense every little moment can feel—with a highly entertaining authenticity that makes Eighth Grade something like movie nirvana.
Review: Eighth Grade Is An Uncommonly Insightful Look at Those Brutally Awkward Years
Parade spoke with Burnham and Fisher about the modern American teenager, the Internet and the #MeToo movement.
In your words, what sets Eighth Grade apart from other teen movies?
Burnham: I love nostalgic movies. This is not a nostalgic movie. It can inspire nostalgia in you, but–
Fisher: It’s meant to be felt while you watch it.
Burnham: It’s visceral. It’s not meant to be remembering this time. You’re going to feel this time again as it is, hopefully.
Sometimes, there’s a little impulse in teen movies that in order for the teen character to be worthy of a story, they need to be articulate beyond their years—sort of young poet laureates. We set out to talk about about being unable to articulate yourself, being unable to have a vision of how you might present yourself to the world, and not living up to that.
An issue in movies about people this age is that they’re MOVIES, and all the characters look like people that are in MOVIES and they’re all in MOVIES. Our story is almost about a person that wishes she was in movies. She wishes her life was like a movie. But it’s—it’s like a different type of movie (laughs).
Fisher: Yeah. We just tried to be real about it. A lot of teen movies are marketed for teens but they’re written by adults with no perspective on teens. Not to call anyone out—I’m not talking about any one movie specifically—they’re just not honest about it. This was nice because it felt real. And it felt good to be real.
Burnham: And movies about this age—some should be aspirational, but not all need to be aspirational. There are ones that are pretending that they’re honest, but they’re actually aspirational. Like a “dorky” teen who isn’t cool still sounds like a poet and her ability to articulate herself is suspiciously like a screenwriter‘s ability to articulate themselves—hmmm, I wonder why?
The great irony in that is that if something is just super real and truthful, many will find aspirational qualities just in that.
Burnham: Exactly. I don’t think it’s good to aspire to be something you can’t be. But to aspire to be comfortable in your flaws or to be a little more forgiving of yourself…If our movie is aspirational, the good news is, it’s very attainable too [laughs]. It’s not like you have to be a different person.
Fisher: Yeah, that’s nice. It’s a reasonable aspiration.
Bo, did Elsie give you any pointers about the life of a contemporary 13-year-old girl for extra authenticity?
Burnham: Yeah, the initial thing was watching a lot of kids online talk about themselves, watching little girls talk about themselves and just listening. What’s really authentic about the movie for me is what isn’t said—the space between what’s being said, and what she’s choosing not to say. That was all provided by her.
But specifically, she read the script and said, “No one uses Facebook anymore.” All of her messages were on Facebook in the script—so I put that in the script and made it all Instagram and Twitter. And that was with all the kids. I told them all, “Don’t be nervous! You are the bosses of this movie, not me. I’m going to control it, but you know what it’s like so tell me, show me.” That was the hope—to get this all into the movie unprocessed. I don’t have to understand everything for it to be in the movie.
Elsie, what can you tell us about Bo as a director?
Fisher: He’s just good. At everything [laughs]. I’ve never gotten to work closely with a director, and I’m glad Bo is the first one I got to work closely with. He’s very good at explaining stuff. If I didn’t get the gist of a scene he could put it in—simpleton terms, I suppose [laughs]. We have similar personalities. And he’s acted, so he knows what it’s like to be an actor.
Burnham: I can only direct by acting.
Elsie: That’s perfect, though.
Bo also has a great eye for a detail, and a way of finding big-screen entertainment value in tiny little everyday human eccentricities.
Burnham: That was the hope—to keep it very, very simple, and, in effect, small, but to have these moments register as very, very significant. Because that is the experience of being in eighth grade. You go, nothing happens…and it’s the most intense thing in the world. The most intense thing in the world doesn’t need to happen for it to feel like that.
A lot of teen movies become intense because kids FEEL SO MUCH SO INTENSELY. My hope for the movie is you’ll come out of it and be like, “Phew, that was crazy! That was a lot.” But really she just goes to the mall and a pool party and nothing really happened [laughs]. Because to her, that’s what it is.
And that’s true for a lot of people. We’ll go, “Man I had the craziest day!” and it’s like, what happened? “Oh, some guy at the grocery store said some weird thing.” I think the drama of our life sort of is overlaid onto very small moments. I wanted to make those moments feel very large and cinematic, and say they’re worthy of a movie.
What do you think is the hardest part of being a teenager today?
Fisher: Maybe in my own experience—just having opinions about things and not being able to be heard. Generally young people don’t have much of an online presence—or if they do, their opinions aren’t taken seriously.
Burnham: Yeah, no one cares about the online presence.
Fisher: Yeah, as a young person, especially now that we’re more socially aware—it’s hard when you have opinions about things and you try to speak up, but even people in real life don’t really listen to you.
Burnham: There’s a certain frequency that they have to live at that’s really tough. Getting in bed at the end of the day you have to choose between all of the information in the history of the world, or the back of your eyelids. That’s a pretty extreme choice. They just kind of go between really high extremes, which I think just lends itself to anxiety. I think that’s the worry. And I think the things that they have to deal with are supplied by people who don’t even understand it. I don’t even know if half of Silicon Valley even knows what they’re doing when they send these apps out into the world.
The truth is, I’m more curious to hear their answer than to give my answer.
The internet is like a supporting character in this movie. Do you think the invention of the internet has made our lives better?
Burnham: I think it’s made it more MORE, and just made it more intense. It’s given voice and visibility to people who don’t have it and that’s great, it’s given a platform for social movements that are needed and that’s great. It’s also set the culture on fire. It’s like nuclear energy. It hasn’t made the world better; it’s made the world more powerful and more extreme.
Fisher: Yeah, the internet is a set of tools and you can use them however you want. They’ve been used for great things or… other things.
Burnham: Yeah, you can build a house with a hammer, or you can kill your spouse.
Fisher: Spouse house.
Fisher: Build a house out of your spouse. [both laugh]
And what’s the best thing about being a young person today?
Fisher: [slaps her knees] You got those good joints, ya know. No arthritis yet.
Burnham: [laughs] Yeah, that’s about as good an answer as you’re going to get. Your bones aren’t hurting yet. Now, my bones weren’t hurting at that age because I was growing so quickly.
Fisher: You poor, poor boy.
There’s a scene late in the movie where it gets much darker and takes on more resonance—the skin-crawling game of Truth or Dare. It’s impossible not to connect to the #MeToo movement. Has that changed the way you’ve been asked about the film?
Burnham: Yeah, it’s asked a lot. It’s good—I hope it integrates into the conversation in a way that’s fruitful. I think it’s saying what the movement has been saying: that things don’t need to be on-paper ‘”criminal” in order to be devastating and violating.
A lot of people go like, “I’m so glad that scene didn’t go where I thought it was going to go!” Kind of the point of the scene is it doesn’t need to go there in order for it to be incredibly wrong. This is the sort of thing where if this girl were to write a blog post about it, you could picture someone saying, “What? He sat in the back seat with you and touched your arm and you said no…who cares? When you actually feel it there with her, it’s like, this is wrong. The subjective truth of it is meaningful, and I think that’s a big part of the conversation.
What is something about teenage girls that you wish everybody knew or that people were more in tune with?
Fisher: Just that they have a mind [Burnham laughs]. They’re not a stereotype. Like, I try to be a nice kid but people in malls will give me looks, like, you’re a teenager?! Be less scared of us; we’re just…people who go to school.
Burnham: Yeah, and when they want to get on their phone to get away from the world, rather than criticizing them for being on their phone, maybe think about why they’re on it.
This movie is being released at a moment when all eyes are on the American teenager. What inspires you the most about the modern American teenager?
Burnham: Their sweet-a%$ SoundCloud beats [Fisher laughs].
Fisher: Dude, yeah! I have a SoundCloud rapper at my school… it’s pretty dope.
Burnham: I think they’re better with the internet. They get it. If there’s going to be a way out of the internet, and a way to figure it out, and to solve it and have better conversations, it is kids. Kids are less divisive with each other than adults are right now. And I hope kids don’t inherit the political divisiveness.
Kids are just cool. A lot of them are just naturally inclusive to each other. But I’m not going to say I’m just inspired. It’s scary too; they’re weird too. [To Fisher] You shouldn’t be inspired, because they torture you at school.
Fisher: [laughs] They can be terrible, but they’re more inclusive and they’re more prone to be open-minded without being told to be open-minded. And that’s something I appreciate. A lot of kids my age and younger are just naturally that way, and that’s cool.
From A24, Eighth Grade opens July 13.