Eighth Grade captures that awkward phase perfectly

We spoke with Bo Burnham about his too-close-for-comfort directorial debut.

Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher

Something happened to me watching Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade that had never happened to me before:

I became so uncomfortable with the awkwardness of a scene that I just got up from my seat in the theatre and went to sit elsewhere. It was a purely reactive decision; I simply needed to do something about it. I decided, of course, that I should let Burnham know that his film caused an unprecedented involuntary physical reaction.

“I appreciate it — it’s a high compliment,” laughs Burnham. “We’re just trying to get people active!”

Eighth Grade follows the last week of middle school for Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a quiet, anxious 13-year-old who isn’t so much a nerd or reject as she is almost completely invisible. Living alone with her well-meaning but generally clueless dad (Josh Hamilton), Kayla still straddles the line between childhood and adolescence, pursuing both childish interests and a desire to be seen as mature. Her biggest passion is vlogging, performing self-help monologues that few people watch and — most importantly — that contain advice about confidence and self-actualization that she herself doesn’t follow. As the school year draws to a close and high school looms on the horizon, Kayla’s main concern is to simply make it through each day (relatively) unscathed.

Eighth Grade is aggressively un-nostalgic about the most awkward and transitional period in most people’s lives. Unsentimental yet completely free of artifice, Eighth Grade is one of the more accurate warts-and-all depictions of impending teenagedom. Though Burnham himself is more than a decade removed from that time, he casts an extremely level-headed look at the banal horror of being 13.

“I didn’t want to make something nostalgic,” says Burnham. “I wanted to talk about what I was feeling at the time and trying to talk about anxiety. It would be lovely to be able to look back on anxiety, but that’s not how it works — you have to look out from within it. I think a reason why high school movies tend to be nostalgic is because we remember them nostalgically. We look back and get warm and fuzzy thinking of all the fun times in high school, but we try to forget the bad stuff. To portray eighth grade, I had to pick up all the things I forgot and all the things I’d suppressed. I think eighth grade is a much more visceral time than high school, which even at the time can be sort of rose-coloured. High school feels like a memory, but middle school feels like a traumatic event that you feel in your bones.”

Burnham first envisioned the film as a multi-character tapestry, finally settling on the Kayla character somewhere in the writing process. Though thoroughly unremarkable in many ways (Riverdale wouldn’t bother with a Kayla, let’s say), she represents a perfect vessel to tell the story.

“The idea at first was to do something like Altman,” says Burnham. “In order to describe the current moment, I would have to describe it from all these angles in order to do it justice. When I found her, I found that I could say everything I want with her. It just became that much more simple. I realized actually what I was trying to say was something very personal — something about loneliness, probably — and that was best expressed with one person. And her, specifically. She has such a capacity for feeling that adults just don’t have as much — she’s just so open and transparent in the best way. You can get to the nerve endings very quickly.”

Burnham also does away with the scrubbed-down, fresh-faced teenagers of most television and movies. The teenagers here are a gangly, gawky bunch, their faces filled with acne and many of them still stuck in a pre-puberty purgatory. That means, of course, having real teenagers be willing to be depicted in this unflattering way.

“The truth is that teenagers are a lot more self-aware than you remember them being,” says Burnham. “They’re aware of what’s happening to them. And in terms of showing their acne or whatever, I think it’s way, way more damaging to kids to put them in a movie and tell them, ‘In order for you to be in this movie, we need to change everything about you because you are so not worthy of representation right now.’ I believe she is absolutely worthy of being watched. I don’t think any of her details make her unwatchable or not beautiful or not magnetic. Acne is just… you have it at that age! After five minutes of the movie, you stop seeing it.

“To me, it’s the suppression of the truth of kids that’s really damaging. The kids want to have permission to be themselves. Yeah, you’re a little awkward — we’re all awkward! We were certainly all awkward at their age. They can own their vulnerabilities in the same way adults can, because they’re aware of them. It’s much more damaging to try to gloss them over. We just tried to be honest. She was part of that process — she wanted to see a movie with someone that had skin like hers. She was bummed out that movies didn’t represent people like her. She totally saw the value of that.” 

Eighth Grade opened in theatres on Friday, July 27.