BO BURNHAM is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking, honest brand of stand-up comedy, but he’s making headlines these days for a project that might seem left-field to some - his critically lauded new film Eighth Grade. The film, which is set for a screening at the Lucas Theatre on October 12, tells the story of a 13-year-old student named Kayla Day (played brilliantly by Elsie Fisher) who struggles to find her place during the last week of her eighth grade year amid often-crippling anxiety and a search for social acceptance.
The film follows Kayla as she inwardly wrestles with her anxiety issues but outwardly produces YouTube videos that give advice on topics such as self-confidence. There are small victories for Kayla throughout the movie, which boost her confidence and find her ultimately looking a bit more brightly towards her oncoming high school years.
The movie has been compared in some respects to the coming-of-age films of the 80s, but, in truth, it stands on its own. Eighth Grade acts as an unromanticized, non-hyperbolic snapshot of life at a particularly challenging age, which arguably can’t be said about many films that examine similar themes.
“I had no interest in making a coming-of-age movie. I wanted to talk about the things that felt urgent to me - anxiety and what it feels like to be alive at the moment. Which, I think, is a very strange feeling,” Burnham tells Connect.
“What I discovered when digging into this was that the really deep shit that you struggle with for your entire life does start at that age. Your self-awareness is kind of turned on like a light switch at that age, and you start to engage with questions that you’ll wrestle with in different circumstances during your life. For me it was [about] treating a kid’s experience as seriously as you’d treat an adult’s experience.”
Burnham began working on Eighth Grade several years ago, at a time when he was struggling with anxiety and panic attacks. The process of creating the film was in many ways therapeutic for the first-time director, who says that his creative endeavors - whether it be filmmaking or doing stand up comedy - have always been in some ways cathartic.
“For me, creating anything is therapeutic. I’d say I’m as similar to [Kayla] as I am to the guy that I play on stage,” he says. “If not maybe slightly more similar to her than him. The stand-up stuff is just a little more explicitly me. But I didn’t think of it that differently.”
The biggest difference between the two endeavors is, Burnham says, that Eighth Grade was a team effort as opposed to his comedy being something that is largely his vision alone.
“It’s much more collaborative, whereas the standup is much more singular,” he explains. “I enjoy that process. I really enjoy working with others and collaborating."
A big focus of the movie is on Kayla’s relationship with her father, Mark (played by Josh Hamilton). Their conversations are almost always had from two sides of the roadblock that is social media, and the single father often struggles to relate to his daughter or connect and an emotional level.
“[Social media] gives you a really easy out to not discuss things. It gives you an easy out of, sort of, silent and awkward moments that you’d just have to endure when you didn’t have this thing to look at all the time,” he says.
“But at the same time, because it’s a different generation and parents are probably more open to communication than they’ve ever been, I think that the net outcome is probably more communication. Certainly more than previous generations, I think. It’s a generation of parents who want to be their kids’ best friends and talk to them about everything. Which is its own struggle.”
Fisher’s performance in the film, while not the only compelling one from the mostly-young cast, is one that people are likely to talk about for a long time. The segments of the film that show her recording YouTube videos feel entirely authentic and off-script, with her voice often wavering and words being frequently stumbled over.
As it happens, Burnham actually discovered Fisher - who’s known for her role in the first two Despicable Me films - on YouTube when he found a clip of her being interviewed.
“It was going to be hard trying to find a young actor to play this part, because it felt like anyone who goes into an audition ready to audition is already not right for the part. Because Kayla would be very nervous at audition,” he says.
“So you needed someone who had the ability to give the performance, which to me was complex and different, and very technical. And also someone who could understand the vulnerability of maybe not loving this crazy rat race of attention that our culture is in.”
The audition process found Burnham testing actors who were not connecting authentically to the role.
“It felt like confident kids pretending to be shy, and [Fisher] felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident. Which is what the actual role is,” he says. “And not that she was actually shy and unconfident. But it’s that she understood what shyness was. She played Kayla as active, where everyone else kind of felt like they were playing Kayla as this weak, passive person.”
Working with the young actor, and her equally young castmates, was an exercise in making them feel “safe enough to fail, and safe enough to stumble over their words and take risks.”
“If you’re going to get a performance from anyone that’s spontaneous and real, what surrounds that performance is failure and faceplanting. So people have to just be comfortable to faceplant on camera, and you have to make an environment that makes them all feel safe to do that,” he says.
Eighth Grade is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and on all digital platforms.