Bo Burnham is the last person you’d expect to direct what critics are calling the most spot-on depiction of modern teenage girls. The 27-year-old male comedian first became famous for cleverly worded dick jokes on YouTube. But his feature film debut, Eighth Grade, has touchstone potential, offering the emotional accuracy of John Hughes films in the ’80s and Clueless in the ’90s.
If you are perplexed by modern teenage girls, you’re not alone. The question of why they behave the way they do confounds pretty much everyone, including teenage girls. But the land mines they are stepping over (or on)—hormones, peer pressure, family dynamics, the anxieties of dating and sex, self-hatred—are not new, preoccupying books and films since the idea of a teenage mindset debuted sometime in the 1920s.
What has changed is technology, and Burnham’s take is firmly rooted in the echo chamber of social media, where kids can, at least in their bedrooms, become the extroverted, popular people they wish they were. In the case of Eighth Grade, it’s 13-year-old girl Kayla, beautifully played by Elsie Fisher, a desperately lonely kid with a YouTube channel. The film opens with the three-beep countdown of the Photo Booth app: “I don’t talk a lot at school,” Kayla vlogs to her presumed fan base, “but if people talk to me and stuff, they’d find out that I’m, like, really funny and cool and talkative.”
Unfortunately, there are no fans to speak of. Her classmates are absorbed in their own Instagram and Snapchat stories. As Fisher tells Newsweek, “Kayla’s not bullied. She’s ignored.”
Unlike Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age debut, Lady Bird, Burnham’s is not exploiting his own teen angst. “I didn’t want it to be nostalgic,” he says. “I wanted to talk about what it felt like to be alive now. I wanted it to be visceral and current.”
Burnham understands the power of YouTube. The comedy songs he began making at 16, including “ My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay,” have tens of millions of views and led to three stand-up specials. Still, that was over a decade ago, so the director did his research to try to empathize with Gen Z. Hundreds of hours logged watching vlogs from teen girls revealed some hard truths: Social media isn’t an accessory in these teenagers’ lives. It’s an extension of their personalities. As such, Eighth Grade integrates technology into every hour of Kayla’s day, which begins with a YouTube makeup tutorial, followed by an “I woke up like this” selfie; endless scrolling through Instagram during meals; ignoring her concerned, single-parent father (Josh Hamilton); and hours of feverishly reblogging posts on Tumblr in her bedroom at night.
Burnham found the illusion of popularity poignant. These young women “are probably talking to audiences of 10 but act like there are a million people watching,” says Burnham. “So much of the current experience feels like that—performing for an audience that might not be there. You can see how these girls are trying to come off,” he adds, referring to the celebrities they are attempting to emulate. “And you can see their reaction to their failure to do so. I watched those videos and thought, I wonder what her life is really like?”
Burnham wrote a first draft of the script in March 2014 and unsuccessfully shopped it around for two years. “The movie was dead,” he says. But then he came across a red-carpet interview with Fisher, the voice of Agnes in two Despicable Me movies. What he saw was Kayla. Burnham called in Fisher to read for the part—she said yes to the audition because she was a fan of his comedy—and found that his instinct was correct. “So many kids would read, and it felt like a confident kid pretending to be shy. Elsie was the only one that felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident.”
Given the rapidly evolving technological landscape, by the time Fisher signed on, the script needed refreshing. Facebook played a much bigger role until the then 13-year-old actor told Burnham, “No one uses Facebook anymore.” (He put that line in the mouth of the popular girl at Kayla’s school.)
Still, there were no buyers for the film until Burnham’s third stand-up special, Netflix’s Make Happy, in 2016. With that release, discerning producers Scott Rudin and A24 took him on.
Filming revealed his young star’s real gifts. Kayla’s anxiety is palpable, and the dialogue so spontaneous and achingly honest (liberally dosed with the requisite teenage linguistic tics “uh,” “like,” etc.), many have assumed the script is improvised. But like the deceptively loose films of Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Boyhood), Eighth Grade’s artlessness is largely on the page. “I’m very familiar with the way teens talk, being one myself,” says Fisher, who is now 15. “And Bo wrote it very naturally, to his credit.”
Burnham was determined to avoid what he calls “the young-person poet laureate. I don’t love movies where kids are more articulate than they need to be,” he says. “The story is about being young, and part of being young is being inarticulate.”
In casting the film, he stuck with that authenticity, assiduously avoiding the Hollywood pitfall of hiring beautiful 20-something actors to play teenagers. Every kid in Eighth Grade looks as young, awkward and pimply as middle schoolers really are—even the popular boy Kayla crushes on (Luke Prael). “There’s been a good push for diversity in film and television,” says Burnham, “but there isn’t much aesthetic diversity. That’s very important for real kids—to be able to see that they’re watchable, dynamic and beautiful.”
As far as coming-of-age movies go, Eighth Grade is relatively low-key: No one gets pregnant or assaulted. Rather, it’s filled with internal dramas—particularly how hard young girls are on themselves. The one moment of external conflict happens when a lecherous high school boy (Daniel Zolghadri) offers to drive Kayla home after a mall hangout. Once they’re alone in the car, he demands that she take off her shirt. Kayla timidly but bravely refuses, all the while apologizing profusely. When she gets home, she locks herself in her room and sobs (Fisher says the scene was the most difficult of the shoot).
“Some people say to me after the movie, ‘I’m so glad that scene didn’t go where I thought it was going,’” says Burnham. “But the point of it is that it doesn’t need to go there for it to be reprehensible and violent. It’s about portraying a situation that, when described after the fact, might not sound like a big deal but is incredibly emotionally violating.” And adults often dismiss those intense, often scarring feelings, he adds.
Burnham disputes the notion that the film is a take-down of social media or a generation’s dependence on it. That said, his own internet anxieties were the script’s original inspiration. “This generation is called self-obsessed, and that’s true—but it’s not self-obsessed in a narcissistic way,” he says. “It’s self-obsessed in a sad way. You can’t interface with this thing without taking inventory of yourself and objectifying yourself. It’s just a bummer.”
And yet, it’s thanks to YouTube that he has a loyal fan base, a stand-up career and a feature film. “Of course! That’s exactly why I don’t want to take a stance about it,” says Burnham. “It’s a form of self-expression, a form of connection, and gives voice to people that wouldn’t normally have it. That’s incredible.”
Let’s say, then, he’s ambivalent. “I would love to think about myself less,” says Burnham, “but on the internet, it’s sort of inescapable.”