The internet makes eighth graders of us all: Ten minutes with Bo Burnham

Wednesday, June 6, 2018 - 6:48pm

Bo Burnham

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A24

I lingered in the Michigan Theater’s main auditorium last Thursday after the screening of Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, “Eighth Grade.” A crowd of teenagers, young adults and retirees had just finished giving Burnham a standing ovation after his short Q&A and were now streaming out the back of the theater while I fought to make my way to the front. Not a seat in the theater had been empty that night. The movie, which marked the beginning of the Cinetopia Film Festival, had sold out earlier that day — and for good reason. 

“Eighth Grade” is a continuation of movies like “Lady Bird” and “Call Me By Your Name.” While they’re not all explicitly similar in genre or plot, they evoke a similar feeling from their audiences — something like nostalgia, but not quite, and like nervousness, but more trepid. These films zero in on the familiar and universal experiences of growing up and falling in love, while skillfully retaining the autonomy and individuality of their characters.

"Lady Bird" and "CMBYN" fit nicely into the coming-of-age category of films, but “Eighth Grade” narrowly avoids this label. While the movie introduces an expectedly coming-of-age abstract — Kayla (Elsie Fisher, “Despicable Me”) is a shy middle schooler entering her last week of eighth grade who decides to put herself out there before the school year ends — the entire movie is undercut by larger anxieties concerning technology, social media and problems beyond Kayla’s impending high school career.

Burnham, who got his start in comedy by making Youtube videos filmed in his childhood bedroom, has always had these concerns on his mind. Much of his standup challenges our expectations of technology and tries to illustrate the complex relationship our generation has with it. “I’m addicted to the internet too,” Burnham conceded during the Q&A after the screening, but that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t share the anxieties we all do, especially when looking at the effect it could have on younger generations.

“There is a much subtler conversation to be had about the internet beyond Russia and cyberbullying, something very personal and interior to the internet and what it does to people that is not okay,” said Burnham earlier that night in response to an audience member’s question about this aspect of the film. “There’s this sudden impulse to see yourself as a commodity or a character. To sort of float above your life and watch other people watch you and watch other people watch you watch them.”

Much of “Eighth Grade” concerns this kind of watching. Kayla aimlessly scrolls through her Instagram feed, liking pictures and videos of other 13 year olds pulling pranks and painting their nails. She makes videos with survival guide tips on how to be more confident, while suffering from crippling shyness in her day-to-day life. She wants to be seen as someone she’s not, an expert on relationships and “Being Yourself.” Access to Instagram and Youtube makes this very easy for her to do. Kayla’s the eighth grader most of us were: Awkward and introverted with acne-prone skin. But unlike us, she can hide this under Snapchat filters and good lighting.

Making my way to the front of the Michigan Theater under the massive chandelier, swarms of people moving in the opposite direction of me stared. I found Burnham’s representative, who I was directed to in an email, and taken backstage to wait for him to finish up another interview. As I waited, no matter who I talked to, be it Ella, the A24 publicist traveling with Burnham on the tour or a 68-year-old male Michigan Theater employee, everyone’s reactions stuck on the same point: The universality of a 13-year-old girl’s last week of middle school and her efforts to woo the cool kids in school.

“What’s the score?” Burnham asked Ella as we walked down the narrow hallway towards the dressing room. He was referring to the Cavs and Warriors game taking place that night, and I was immediately worried I would have to make small talk about basketball, a subject far from my specialty. But Burnham barely acknowledged this pause before sitting down next to me. He had been answering questions all day; it was 10:45 p.m. and he admittedly looked tired.

A question many people have fixated on in relation to “Eighth Grade” is how Burnham managed to perfectly capture the experiences of a 13-year-old girl without basing it off himself or someone else. Multiple years of touring has exposed him to the age demographic he was trying to paint a picture of but, as he pointed out, anything we need to know about middle schoolers these days is right at our fingertips. They put everything online to be seen.

“I think it would’ve been different if it had been sort of polluted by like ‘Oh this is my little cousin or my friend’s sister,’” Burnham responded when I asked how he managed to draw such a perfect portrait. “When I was writing it, it felt like someone I knew, but it wasn’t specific.” This is how he avoided the nostalgia trap this film could’ve easily become. He was chasing a feeling, not nonfiction.

“I just wanted to do an intense movie about being this person, not what it means to be a kid always throughout all of time. I was feeling very nervous and panicked and anxious on the internet, and I was looking at the internet and meeting people, and I saw all these people also feeling very nervous and panicked in their lives too. So I wanted to explore what it felt like to feel anxious, to feel …” Burnham paused here, thinking. “Anxious is the opposite of nostalgic. It’s the opposite of distance at least. You’re locked in it and you can’t really see outside of yourself. So it was important that the movie didn’t see outside of her. I didn’t want the movie to know any more than she did.”

It’s terrifying to think that the common thread from one generation to the next is anxiety, but the internet undeniably doles out this feeling of uneasiness from one user to the next. And all the details of the film lend themselves to creating this feeling of uneasiness, but also the feeling that we are in Kayla’s world where every look, word and wink is a life or death situation. The audience truly doesn’t see outside of Kayla as Anne Meredith’s EDM score ropes us into the film, dropping a hard-hitting bass drop when Fisher’s character sees her crush for the first time or confronts the mean girl in school.

As far as influences go, Burnham didn’t have any but the faces he’s come across in life and online. But there’s something to be said about how the experience of 27-year-old Burnham can be easily translated to 13-year-old Kayla or 20-year-old me. Why did he think that is the case? I wondered, and then I asked, “What do you think it is about the internet that allows you to write convincingly from the point of view of a 13-year-old and not have the audience bat an eye?”

“I think the culture at the moment is existing on an eighth-grade level, you know what I mean?” Burnham replied. “The national conversation is taking place at an eighth-grade level, our president has like an eighth-grade reading level. So it just feels very true to me. I think the internet makes eighth graders of us all.”

What struck me about this conversation with Burnham, and replies like these, was the concern and anxiety seeping into his voice as he talked about these topics, and how starkly it contrasts from the Burnham confined to Netflix specials and computer screens. While his standup drips with vitriol and is known for its dramatic flare, this movie is entirely different. It’s smart and clever and honest, tackles similar subject matters as “what.” and “Make Happy,” but isn’t the least bit arrogant or pretentious.

As Burnham put it, this movie is truer to who he is. “I am not naturally that pyrotechnic, overridden, cynical thing. It’s what the medium called for … and the truth was I was onstage terrified every night.” Making the move from irony to sincerity for Burnham was “freeing.” “It was natural. It felt more like dropping things like finally I can drop all these tools. I’m so excited to finally do something that isn’t ironic, isn’t satirical.”

When we're children, we just want adults to recognize the magnitude of our situation. “Eighth Grade” captures the life and death feeling attached to being 13 years old. Between the music, Elsie Fisher's fantastic performance and Burnham's attention to the most minute details, the audience was dragged into this feeling and left laughing, squirming and occasionally shielding their eyes, unable to stand the familiarity of it.

“I didn’t want to make a nostalgic movie,” Burnham said during the theater’s Q&A session. “I wanted to know about what it’s like to be young now. I watched hundreds of videos of kids online talking about their own life and the boys talked about minecraft, and the girls talked about their souls.”

I don’t think Burnham made a nostalgic movie. It’s difficult to feel nostalgic about such a confusing, anxious, hormonal time in one’s life. But he did make a reflective movie, an honest one. He made a movie that triggers feelings of anxiety and terror as we feel them in eighth grade and now on a larger scale. As Burnham put it, “Sweeping decisions about the future of our brain’s neurochemistry are being made by nine guys with no social skills in Silicon Valley.” And while being a girl in eighth grade is a common experience among many, these sweeping decisions make every generation’s experience in middle school more and more unknowable.