Eighth Grade: Opening Night at the Boston Independent Film Festival

April 27, 2018 | By Nadia Naeem

Countless young people took cover from the rain inside the Somerville Theater on April 25 to watch an early screening of Massachusetts native Bo Burnham’s new movie, “Eighth Grade” at the opening night of the Boston Independent Film Festival. The film, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, does a tremendous job encapsulating the essence of eighth grade and youth in present day, as writer and director Burnham searches for a way to depict his own childhood anxiety and how it was linked to the internet. He constructed the honest voice of young Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher, as a vehicle for his feelings. While Burnham has seen previous success from his widely known comedy specials, he claimed, in the Q&A that followed the screening, to be getting sick of his own face and wanted to break off from stand-up in order to express his feelings in a new way. 


Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Cabage

Although Burnham was never a thirteen year old girl, he tapped into a genuine depiction of what the world is like now and how especially troubling it can be for young people. In fact, Burnham said, in the Q&A portion of the event, that he was violently aware of his position as a man telling a young girl’s story and, as such, collaborated with the star of the movie, Fisher. Burnham also said that while he was writing the film he “watched a lot of videos of kids talking online about themselves, the boys tended to talk about minecraft, [and] the girls tended to talk about their souls.” Inevitably, and hilariously, he found himself relating more to the girls. When talking about his choice of eighth grade specifically, Burnham said that “the internet makes eighth graders of us all,” and that eighth graders are “feeling things so purely and intensely, and [he] wanted to make a pure and intense movie.” 

The protagonist of the film, Kayla, is finishing her last week in eighth grade before going into high school. She struggles with friendships, self esteem, courage, among other trials and tribulations that go along with this volatile stage of life. The film opens on one of her YouTube videos in which we see her discussing the topic of being yourself. The ideas Kayla discusses in her video are then undercut when we see her applying makeup in order to post a picture of herself in bed with the caption claiming “I woke up like this.” The use of Kayla’s YouTube videos are a recurring element throughout the film where we see that she is giving advice that she clearly struggles with taking herself. The voice of the optimistic and wise YouTube-Kayla are put over scenes of her struggling to do what she is in fact telling others to do. Kayla is an inherently relatable character, whether you’re an eighth grade girl or not. 

The technical aspects of the film make it uniquely visceral and current. The music could be loud and overwhelming at times, giving off a feeling of anxiety but also serving to make Kayla’s story seem larger. Burnham chose to forego the typical orchestral score, in favor of a more electronic sound and so he chose Anna Meredith, a Scottish composer, to create the techno music for the film. Burnham wanted the film to look and sound digital and Meredith’s work helped immensely to get that point across. In terms of the look of the film, scenes involving screens were depicted in a fresh way. 

One of the most impressive aspects of the film is seen in Fisher’s overall performance. (known for her roles in “Despicable Me” as the unicorn obsessed Agnes, and “McFarland, USA”, as the spunky daughter Jaime White). One thing that Burnham noted is that while many of the YouTube video scenes may seem ad-libbed in fact, every “um, like, and or whatever” is written into the script. The fact that Fisher was able to work with such a particular script, and give a performance that feels so real is truly exceptional. Burnham remarked that once he found Fisher during the casting process, he knew had found someone vulnerable enough to play Kayla, but also strong enough to carry the whole movie. 

Overall, Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher have created a uniquely heartwarming, while also heartbreaking film about the hardships of adolescence in the modern age.

The full movie is set to release on July 13.