When I was 13, every social interaction felt high-stakes. Even the ones that were, in retrospect, NBD made for dramatic diary entries. But as time has passed, those cringe-inducing moments have grown foggy. I’m at the point where most movies about teens induce some sort of nostalgia—but watching YouTube star Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade made my adolescent discomfort instantly snap into focus. Suddenly I remembered how it truly felt to take a nervous inhale before I spoke to someone new, or the humiliation of having to re-introduce myself to local kids at a party because they didn’t remember that we’d met before.
Eighth Grade, which opens in select cities in Canada at the end of July and early August, follows 13-year-old Kayla (actress Elsie Fisher, 15) through her last week of elementary school, during which her classmates name her “Most Quiet.” Even though we grew up in different generations, I related deeply to Kayla and her story. At her age, there was nothing that frustrated me more than being described as quiet.
Watching Eighth Grade forced me to remember how stifling it can be to see yourself one way (Kayla describes herself as “funny” and “cool” in the movie), while others perceive you completely differently (her classmates barely acknowledge her). Kayla’s painstaking efforts to find her people made me feel simultaneously seen and sympathetic. Despite keeping to herself at school, she still goes to a pool party with her classmates and expresses herself—her funny, cool side, that is—in her far-from-viral YouTube videos. As I watched her navigate a social media-driven grade eight world, I realized that Kayla wasn’t actually trying to find her voice, she was just looking for her audience. And as a fellow former ‘quiet girl,’ she had me hooked.
Burnham channelled his experience with anxiety into Kayla’s story
Burnham purposely played with the tension between who you think you are and how others see you when creating Kayla’s character. She’s definitely at least a little bit extroverted, particularly as a teen in the digital age, where sharing everything publicly on social media is the new norm. And, though he can’t relate to her specific middle school experience, he does relate to the way she feels in the film. “It’s definitely a weird time to be a naturally quiet person,” he says, going on to explain that, while he wasn’t introverted at 13, he became more quiet and anxious as he got older. “I wasn’t doing the sort of self-analysis that [Kayla’s] doing at that age,” he told me. “Then at 15, 16 I started to get in my head a little bit more.”
In 2006, Burnham posted his first video on YouTube, a comedic song called “My Whole Family…” which has since been viewed more than 10 million times. He eventually switched from online to live audiences, with stand-up performances, as well as solo comedy specials like 2016’s Make Happy. His career in comedy was taking off, but it was coupled with increased anxiety and panic attacks, the first of which he experienced on stage in 2013. He eventually opted to work behind-the-scenes, directing specials for Chris Rock and Jerrod Carmichael, as well as acting in movies like The Big Sick.
While fleshing out ideas for his first feature film, the writer-director realized that setting the story during the final year of elementary school would help him explore his more recent anxieties. “It feels like being alive right now is very confusing,” he admits. “I’m confused. I’m unsure of where I am and all of those things seemed to mix with eighth grade pretty well.”
Why Burnham chose to make his central character a young girl
Having gotten his start on YouTube, it’s no surprise that Burnham turned to the video platform for inspiration—and the videos he watched convinced him to make the main character a young woman. “[In YouTube clips] the boys talked about Minecraft, and the girls talked about their souls,” he says.
Ultimately, he could relate to the girls because they wrestled with questions about who they were and hoped to be. He also wanted to distance himself from Kayla’s story. “I didn’t want it to be a projection of my own experience. It being about a girl… allowed the movie, hopefully, to feel fresh, and not like a memory.” He admits to feeling the pressure to get it right, but that comfort came in casting Fisher.
“We talked about our anxiety, how we both feel about the internet, what makes us want to curl up in a ball and what makes us want to go out into the world,” says Burnham. Kayla also lives between those extremes, either using her headphones to block everyone out or jumping at the chance to go to the mall with new friends. As Kayla’s final week before high school unfolds, we quickly find out she’s much more than the superlative her classmates give her. Just like I alternated between being outgoing and more reserved depending on who was around, Kayla flips between being a withdrawn student, optimistic YouTube personality and excited future high-schooler, all depending on her environment.
“I think of Kayla like a classic hero, trying to make sense of the world around her,” says Burnham. “I felt a real kinship with her.”
Turns out, so do I.