The internet is a very different place than when Bo Burnham’s irreverent YouTube videos went viral in 2006.
Burnham is a pioneer of post-Instagram and Snapchat internet fame, gaining popularity for posting videos of himself singing and playing electric piano in his bedroom when YouTube was barely a year old. Nowadays, he says he doesn’t even recognize the internet.
“It’s changing so rapidly, it just feels like I won NASCAR when they were racing Model Ts,” he jokes. “Now they’re going 10 times quicker and I probably would’ve never caught up to what’s happening now.”
Burnham wrote and directed his first feature film, Eighth Grade (slated for theater release on July 27), which paints a brilliantly cringe-inducing portrait of what it’s like to be in eighth grade in 2018. But it is also a blisteringly earnest account of the human experience.
The film is at once poignant and side-splitting, and will make audiences recoil and rejoice as 13-year-old protagonist Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) navigates the last days of her last year of middle school.
Eighth Grade opens with a close-up of Kayla as she talks to her computer camera about self-confidence, boys, being yourself and growing up. Burnham skillfully blurs the lines between the internet and reality throughout the movie; though Kayla’s advice on adolescence seems insightful and self-assured via social media, she struggles with social anxiety and low self-confidence in real life. But how did someone who knows virtually nothing about going through puberty in 2018 pen such an accurate portrayal of it?
“The lucky thing about it is, if you want to know about adolescents in 2018, they’re posting everything about themselves online, so it’s pretty easy to find,” Burnham says.
Writing the screenplay required extensive research that included watching hundreds of YouTube videos of kids talking to their cameras and transcribing each video verbatim to capture the voice of a generation in script form.
The film has a slew of contemporary pop culture references, such as Kayla’s quirky signature sign-off “gucci,” which young audiences will know isn’t a nod to the Italian luxury brand, but a slang admission of approval. It is small, subtle references like this that make Eighth Grade feel authentic and three-dimensional and not like audiences are being catered to with hollow, contrived versions of their own experiences.
Burnham says he didn’t put pressure on Fisher and the rest of the young cast to talk or act a certain way, which allowed for organic and authentic character development.
“I didn’t want to put a poster in her room that she wouldn’t have. I wasn’t going to put, like, Battletoads in there because you have that in movies… where a kid is a fan of the Ramones,” he says. “A cool kid isn’t a fan of Velvet Underground. A cool kid is a fan of Frank Ocean. I didn’t want to project my sh*t on the kids, so I asked them, ‘What do you like? What do you do?’”
He also wanted to tell a new story, not a nostalgic one, so Kayla’s eighth-grade experience is different from his own. The film may bring up feelings from the audience’s own adolescence, but Burnham says it’s strange how little he thought of his own coming-of-age story while writing it.
“If anything, it parallels my current experience way more,” he says. “Her feelings of being isolated on the internet or feeling lonely and self-conscious or how her life appears to other people, those are all things I feel now.”
But why eighth grade? Put simply, Burnham felt like it hadn’t been done before, unlike the often clichéd high school narratives played out in John Hughes movies.
“There are so many movies about high school… I feel like we’ve seen the freshman thing… but with eighth grade, it feels so transitional. I couldn’t think of an eighth grade movie, but when you say eighth grade to someone, everyone has an image in their mind,” he says.
Burnham found fame on social media when it was still in its infancy. He says the way YouTube has evolved from a place to share creative efforts, to a platform to present yourself as a person is “totally freaky.”
“And to see young kids get involved with it was wild,” he says. “I think kids feel more real on the internet than in real life, which is really strange.”
He does, however, remember what it’s like to be 13 and feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.
Kayla’s life, not unlike most middle schoolers, is a rollercoaster of emotions. In fact, one of the most inadvertently insightful quotes in the movie comes from when she is struggling to explain the complexities of anxiety to her internet audience. She says she feels nervous all the time, and equates it to constantly waiting in line for a rollercoaster, but never experiencing the relief of taking the ride.
Burnham says it was a challenge to come up with creative ways to describe complex feelings from the perspective of a pre-teen. “A lot of movies about this age are full of these overly articulate, young poet laureate kids, when the experience of being a kid, and honestly the experience of being a person, is not having words for how you’re feeling,” he says.
Burnham admits he was struggling with his own anxiety while writing the script, which was at times “unspeakable.” Because there are often no words to describe a feeling to someone who’s never felt it, it’s easier to compare it to a universal or familiar feeling, like waiting in line for a rollercoaster. Adolescents have access to adult emotions, but don’t have the adult words to define them, he says.
“That was the struggle of the film, in all departments, really,” he continues. “How do you write something for someone who doesn’t know how to talk? How do you dress someone that doesn’t know how to dress? That’s the idea of it… How do you craft something to be perfectly inarticulate?”
Kayla’s imperfections are so accurately crafted, in fact, that it’s easy to forget she is a fictional character. It is the same phenomenon the film touches on in the first place — following the lives of other people, even if you haven’t met them in person. Kayla’s story is so captivating; it will force audiences to wonder about where life takes her long after the credits roll.
It is Burnham’s hope that some piece of the plot will ring true for everyone. He does not, however, want it to come off as a cautionary tale about the internet.
“I think there’s a way to talk about the internet that isn’t just scare tactics like, ‘Oh, the internet is all about cyber bullying and leaking nudes or the internet is Russia.’ There’s something in the middle where it’s like, the internet’s kind of sad and makes us all kind of nervous and makes us suspicious of each other and ourselves,” he says. “And it’s not because it’s a generation of self-obsessed, awful kids, it’s just a generation of kids that have been given this thing that turns them inwards and forces them to think about themselves and their own image.”
Eighth Grade allows audiences to think about society and themselves without feeling barraged with social commentary.
“I would hope maybe younger people watching this can come out feeling like they’ve seen something that feels true to them, and hopefully older people come out understanding what kids are going through, where their frustrations come from,” he says. “This isn’t a lesson; it’s not like, ‘OK, throw your phone in the ocean and you’ll be happier.’ It’s more just like, hopefully anyone can come out feeling less lonely and like you’re not alone in your feelings.”