Eighth Grade is a movie about five days in the life of an eighth grader named Kayla. Not a lot happens, but everything happens, as it does in the last days of middle school, and also adult life, particularly if you have anxiety, which writer-director Bo Burnham is very vocal about having. He knew he didn’t want this movie to lend itself to adult viewers’ nostalgic reimaginings of their own teen years; he wanted them to inhabit Kayla’s discomfort. He knew it wouldn’t be like most movies for 13-year-olds, which tend to be about tweens slaying dragons, and he knew that talking to your crush can be as terrifying as slaying a dragon. And he knew there were things he didn’t know, so he sought the insights of Elsie Fisher (who is perfect as Kayla), as well.
The result is as suffocating as a middle school hallway and as expansive as a fantasy franchise. Fisher’s performance consists of about 100 different subtle, mostly-not-talking feelings in 94 minutes, and they all enveloped me, too. I laughed, whimpered, felt bad for my parents, had flashbacks to terrifying middle school parties, had flashbacks to uncomfortable interactions from just earlier that day, and felt reassured that anxiety is a reasonable response to the terror of daily life—and then reassured that anxiety is not nearly as reasonable as the idea that, in fact, it will all be OK.
I was especially excited by Eighth Grade because it feels like the first movie I’ve seen that thoughtfully, viscerally captures how much of that daily life is now shaped by the presence of a million tiny billboards and social interactions beaming from the palm of one’s hand. It is not an indictment of the internet, it’s just very aware of the internet; of how it can send you deeper into your own head at the same time that it allows you to touch other worlds. Watching the colors change on Kayla’s face as she scrolls through her phone in the dark of her room called to mind the sequence of Dave soaring Beyond the Infinite in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kayla is more tuned out, but no less immersed—one of the internet’s many contradictions that this movie holds both sides of. Another: The internet can both warp reality and act as a portal to more authentic ways of being. Kayla makes YouTube videos of herself riffing on topics like self-esteem and being yourself with a confidence that school-Kayla has yet to locate. This doesn’t drastically change her life for better or worse—the only person who really watches the videos is her dad—but it does help her access her confidence more often, regardless of who’s watching.
Burnham first gained an audience for a YouTube video he made at age 16, in 2006. Now you probably know him as a standup comic and director of comedy specials. He is quick to attribute the film’s deft representation of the internet to timing: Until now, movies have only been made by people who didn’t have the internet until they were adults. But Eighth Grade is so special for other reasons, too, so I wanted to learn about what else informed it, how Elsie navigated Kayla’s world, and the future of all of our brains.
TAVI GEVINSON: Bo, how did you make sure this movie wasn’t like the teachers in the school who are like, “It’s lit!” and Elsie, did you have any input to that end?
BO BURNHAM: The internet means a lot to me, and I don’t understand it as well as a 13-year-old, but I get embarrassed and annoyed when I see like a Taco Bell commercial where it’s like, “Hashtag chalupa, bruh!” But I really was just deferring to [the cast], like, “Tell me when this is corny.”
ELSIE FISHER: When I first read the script all the DMs were on Facebook [instead of Instagram], so after I read it I went up to Bo and was like, “No one uses Facebook anymore!”
Bo: And so there’s a line in the movie where she says, “No one uses Facebook anymore.” I was very open to criticism.
I mean, I’m 22, but I identified the most with Josh Hamilton, who plays Kayla’s dad. That is how I feel.
Bo: It’s very nice to hear a 22-year-old say that. His character was a way to also give voice to my limitations. I feel like a little kid on the internet, but I also feel like an out-of-touch old person who has no fucking idea what’s going on and wants to help out but just is like, “Eh, do you want water? Be happy out there! You deserve it! I’m sorry!”
The conversation Kayla has with the high schoolers who are like, “You had Snapchat when you were nine and we didn’t have it until we were 16 so we are differently wired”–I’ve had that conversation with my friends. I used to think the internet is as good as your ability to filter out nonsense and misinformation, and that if you have a good filter, you’ll be fine. But my filter was formed by a different, mostly pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram, pre-Snapchat Internet. What if your filter is formed by those things! BUT: What if those things are not as bad as I think they are?
Bo: I think if we’re going to be giving kids cell phones, which we seem to be doing, we need to institutionalize some kind of filter. The amount of protection we have for kids in other forms of media, it’s like, if you want to swear on television, you have to go to Congress. If you want to change the brain chemistry of an entire generation—it’s like five dudes in Silicon Valley raising their hands and four dudes not, you know? It’s really bad. If I had had access to everything in the way that you guys do–it’s such a difference between what kids want and need. Kids are not going to pursue what they need. Ever!
Bo: Totally, I need that too. It’s like, no, please tax soda. I don’t want to drink so much soda. Make it harder for me to drink it.