“So topic of today’s video is being yourself. Being yourself can be hard and it’s like, aren’t I always being myself? and yeah, for sure. But being yourself is like not changing yourself to impress someone else…”
What’s it like being a 13-year-old girl in 2018 America? Not easy.
That’s why it’s so impressive that 27-year-old standup comedian and musician Bo Burnham perfectly captured one of the most uncomfortable and awkward years in every adolescents life.
Eighth Grade follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an introverted teenage girl, as she tries to survive the last week of her disastrous eighth grade year before leaving to start high school.
Like Kayla, I wasn’t cool in middle school, and I was deathly quiet outside of my friend group; I was even called mute in seventh grade by a group of mean girls.
Back in the late ’90s, the best way to communicate with guys on the most impersonal level was through AOL. Kayla has a little more of an advantage with the likes of Instagram and Snapchat, but the uncomfortable ugliness of being thirteen still resonates, and Bo Burnham captured every indescribable moment I never thought I’d willingly revisit.
Magnifying that explicit feeling of being a teenager wasn’t what worried Burnham, nor was he concerned about the quality of the film, writing or performances. In an interview with IndieWire, Burnham admit his reservations came from “being a dude telling a story that, on its surface, is very much about a coming-of-age of a young woman. Who was he to tell it?”
“I was so terrified going there, specifically of being a guy,” he said. “I was so worried at the time, like ‘I am in trouble.’”
And, he’s kind of right. Who is this 20-something-year-old, who rose to fame as an acclaimed YouTuber, to tell the story of a female perspective of youth? But save your reservations, because Burnham nailed it.
“I’ve always been interested in middle school as like a confusing, violent place. And the girls, it’s a cruel generality, but it’s just true: Having met hundreds of them, the girls are just asking deeper questions of themselves. I don’t know if that’s innate or if that’s just cultural pressures asking girls to ask deeper questions earlier … I watched a lot of videos of kids online talking about themselves, and the boys talked about Minecraft and the girls talked about their souls. And it was like, ‘Okay, the movie’s gonna probably be about a girl.’ I see myself way more.” Bo Burnham via IndieWire.
With such a great script, Burnham needed another crucial element to the film – an actual teenage girl to bring the script to life. Insert: newcomer Elsie Fisher.
Burnham joked that he “met with every actor in the world, and no one was even close” when it came to Fisher. “She walked in and the lights came on and then the lights went off,” he said. “The movie was alive when she read it and just dead every other time. Almost incoherent every other time. … Every other kid, it felt like they were playing Kayla and she felt like she was being Kayla, playing all the people Kayla wants to be, in every moment.”
Burnham is right. Elsie Fisher is Kayla. I’m Kayla, and you’re Kayla. Kayla represents more than just a character, but a generation that exceeds present day. Maybe we didn’t take selfies in the ’90s, but the isolation, the pimples and the longing desire to fit in all resonated with me.
This could possibly be one of the best raw stories about adolescence without the Hollywood drama or over-exaggerated characters. It’s genuine and real, and it’s a rarity to find in film today.