Published Jul 17, 2018Comedian Bo Burnham has established himself as a directorial force with his debut feature, Eighth Grade. A coming-of-age story about an awkward pre-teen girl, its plot is entirely familiar. What makes the film so special, however, is the immense and all-too-real awkwardness on display throughout the film. For Burnham, that was achieved by chasing maximum authenticity in the project.
Speaking with Exclaim!, Burnham explains that his main goal was to avoid having a gaggle of young adults scrambling around a junior high school. "To be fair, my friend in high school had a five o'clock shadow, so some of them do," he admits. "There are some, absolutely, some 17-year-olds that look older, or some 13-year-olds that look 15. But just on a general portrayal it feels too old. Sometimes it's like, 'You're 25. Very clearly.'
"I don't know why you would want to work with 20-year-olds," he continues. "Other than the labour stuff, where they can work longer hours, I don't understand why you'd ever want to cast older people to play 13-year-olds. I wanted actors to feel like they were looking out from the age, not looking back on the age. I think you can just tell when they're pretending to be kids, rather than they just are kids."
Of course, the film's authenticity hinged on finding the perfect performer to play the role of Kayla, a shy teen desperately trying to unlock her inner confidence. He found the perfect person in Elsie Fisher, who carries the film's emotional heft.
"The casting process was meeting every kid in the world who was an actor," Burnham explains. "Elsie was the only person that, when she played the role, it felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident. Everyone else felt like a confident kid pretending to be shy. She was able to juggle the layers of the performance. She wasn't playing Kayla, she was playing all of the people Kayla wanted to be in every moment to impress or navigate the world."
Fisher also served as a de facto advisor on the film's pop culture touchstones, offering advice to make Kayla's life more true to reality. "It was mostly like, 'We don't use Facebook anymore.' So we would take Facebook out of it," Burnham explains. "I just really went to her for cultural, logistical references. Like what would she be doing here? Would she be on Snapchat or Instagram? What kind of poster would you have on your wall? That sort of thing."
Teen coming-of-age movies are well-trodden territory, but Burnham's dedication to authenticity makes Eighth Grade stand out. To achieve that realism, Burnham found himself embracing clichés. "It's funny — I was just trying to be honest, and sometimes the honest thing was a cliché," he admits. "I wasn't trying to avoid clichés just to avoid them, or be original just to be original. It was like, just be honest. Sometimes that will be something that isn't in movies usually and sometimes it will. There's a scene with a father and a daughter sitting by the fire talking about their feelings. That's kind of a cliché. But clichés happen in real life, and tropes are tropes because they happen."
Eighth Grade opens on July 20 in Toronto, July 27 in Vancouver and Montreal and August 3 in Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton.