20th-century poet W. H. Auden called the industrialized world anxiety-inducing and, in 2018, social media is the nub of our very angst. Instagram and Snapchat turn picture sharing into a competition, reversing the words of Fred Rogers: “You don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you.” Great becomes an enemy of the good, quiet moments are choked of their meaning. The struggle isn’t new and it’s experienced by teenage girls and famous male comedians alike. Written and directed by 27-year-old comedian Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade explores a teenage girl’s quiet desperation.
“I felt like my anxiety was very specific to me being a comedian with an audience. Then I would do my shows, and like young kids would come up to me and said they felt like me,” said Burnham. Eighth Grade is about the anxiety once experienced by performers, now ubiquitous, democratized by social media.
15-year-old actress Elsie Fisher portrays Kayla, a normal middle school girl. It’s her last week of middle school and her burgeoning social life is in view. But the gap between who she was in middle school and who she’s becoming is a ravine made wider, not winnowed, by technology. Kayla’s stuck in her room like any other kid, but watching schoolmates on social media drives her FOMO to parrot self-help platitudes on her YouTube channel. It makes her actual social interactions cringy, but hilariously relatable.
Eighth Grade makes the case for everyone—from teenage girls to hugely successful comedians—to exhibit and experience niceness without a catch, and we talked to Fisher about making the film.
As an actor, do you relate to your character Kayla having her internet self and her real self?
Elsie Fisher: I definitely relate as an actor, but I can also just relate to it as a person. I think really anyone who has social media is performing because you have to worry so much about the permanence of what you say on it. You know, you only want to show your best self.
Do you have anybody like Emily Robinson’s character Olivia in your life? An older teen who introduced you to this high school world.
Yeah, I have three friends in high school who are all juniors. They’re pretty much like Olivia to me. I think Olivia’s character can be summed up in “nice, without a catch.” I think a lot of people assume, “Ih yeah, Kayla’s going to call her and Olivia’s going to be mean. It’s like, oh God!” I’m lucky enough to know people and if we’re being honest it’s more than three, I’m just singling out these friends.
You talked about having to perform online. Do you think as a young adult actor you have to perform a maturity beyond your years, or grow up a little faster?
I feel like it’s beneficial, that’s for sure. I don’t think it’s something you have to do. I’ve met so many child actors who are just doing fantastic. They’re still kids and it’s awesome. I don’t regret growing up faster. I think I was just raised right by my parents. It is beneficial though, it helps me observe the workings on set.
Jake Ryan is so funny in this movie. Were you laughing on set?
It was pretty professional. There were some things, I mean in the moment it’s really awkward and it is a funny scene even when you’re in it. It was pretty professional, we treated all the pretty seriously. The banana scene, when you go and watch it now it’s a pretty funny scene, but on set it was treated just as seriously as something like the car scene because both are part of a truthful narrative.
The movie has so many heightened emotions and the soundtrack amplifies it. Did you hear the music beforehand or did Bo set the tone for how intense it would be?
No, a lot of the tone was set by the wonderful environment created by the cast and crew. I heard the music for the first time when I watched the movie for the first time at the Sundance screening. I was just blown away. I can’t imagine the movie without it. It’s insane.
What was your first response to seeing the film?
I immediately started crying. Not because I was embarrassed to have my face on screen. It was a proud kind of crying, you know?
How was it working with Bo as a director?
It was amazing. He’s a very fantastic director. He’s in the scene with you and I think that’s just wonderful. He was there. It’s hard to point out one specific story but if you ever had a thought, he would want to listen. He would want your input. He was very aware that he was a man writing about a teenager. To me especially and I think all the other kids, he was like, “You guys are the teenagers, you know what’s happening. I don’t. You take the lead.” He was very willing to collaborate. I think that’s beautiful.
Eighth Grade is now in theaters and will expand nationwide this weekend.