Dark side of teen life: Bo Burnham's Eight Grade highlights anxieties of the self generation

Elsie Fisher in the comedy-drama ‘Eighth Grade’.

‘Eighth Grade’ may have plenty laughs, but the film also gives an insight into anxieties for the selfie generation, writes Esther McCarthy

YOU can feel every teenage pimple and growing pain on screen in Eighth Grade, a very funny but also deeply moving look at life through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old girl.

Kayla (a terrific Elsie Fisher) is stumbling through a huge time of transition in her life. In her desire to fit in with her peers and not be known as ‘the quiet one’ at school, her social struggles feel real.

It’s a wise account of growing up but the power in writer/director Bo Burnham’s debut film is its universality. In the daily speed bumps we encounter in life, Elsie Fisher is all of us.

“That’s what I was sort of going after, at least initially,” he tells me. “I had just had a sort of anxiety crisis myself and felt like I needed to talk about it. It felt like the best way to talk about it was not through someone that was, on the surface, like me.

“I hope people that were 13 at other times can relate to it. I also hope that people who are 13 can see themselves in that. When I look at her I don’t see: ‘Oh I was also like that when I was 13’. I look and I go: ‘I feel like that now a lot of times’.

“It’s not just for 13 year olds, in just the same way that a movie about astronauts isn’t just for astronauts. Stories about young women tend to be pigeonholed as a genre and to me it’s like why can’t they represent the human condition in the way other characters are also able to do?”

MANY TALENTS

Burnham, 28, has scored a triumph with his directorial debut, as he has in other career facets of his life. He was still just a teenager when he started his performance career with comic routines and songs on YouTube, and rapidly became a viral hit, notching up hundreds of millions of hits and landing deals with Comedy Central and Netflix.

A career in standup beckoned, but the young man was struggling more and more with anxiety on stage, to the point that he felt he had to walk away. Eighth Grade came about as a result of this time.

“I did stand up for a long time and panic on stage and basically quit standup because of my anxiety. Freak outs in front of 3000 people, having a panic attack on stage. No one knew but I did.

“And just feeling like I’ve got to deal with this thing and then realising that this sort of experience I was having was actually very common and not particular, it was just in extreme circumstances but that the actual experience of it is no different than a girl in a bathroom or a pool party.

“That was the impulse to explore this thing and explore it through a circumstance that was not mine which is not a male comedian touring around it at 25. I wasn’t anxious when I was at eighth grade. My anxiety blossomed much later in life. It was mostly always related to performance but a lot of anxiety is performance anxiety, I think, without being diagnosed as such. I think especially for kids now, social media has turned their life into a performance.”

It’s a film about the value of empathy, and Kayla has a loving ally in her non-judgemental but concerned father, who is raising her as a single parent. Kayla seems addicted to her phone and puts a great deal of effort into cultivating an online image of a confident and assured young woman. The film prompted the New Yorker to writer that “the former YouTube star turns on the medium that made him famous”. Does he agree?

“No, I think I’m just talking about it honestly. It deserves to be taken seriously. It deserves to be seen clearly. I think it does a disrespect to it to try to sell it as something that it’s not. I have immense love and respect for the internet and it’s the respect for the internet that makes you want to see it clearly.

“It’s pretty obvious that it’s not perfect. It’s pretty obvious it’s doing some damage to us, it’s pretty obvious that it’s bumming us out. And it’s connecting us and it’s making us feel good and it’s giving exposure to people that don’t have exposure and visibility to people on issues that didn’t have visibility before. So I don’t think I’m turning on it at all. I think I’m actually respecting it as a complex thing. It’s not just funny cat videos and cyberbullying. It’s something much stranger and deeper than that.”

He also strongly feels that screen addiction is not solely confined to younger generations. “I mean it’s uniquely shitty because these kids’ brains are growing and they’re in a vulnerable position. But we’re all victims of the internet, I don’t feel above this. I’m as addicted to my phone as anybody so I’m really trying to just describe an experience that I share, not judge experiences that younger people are having.”

Drama was his first love before he started in comedy, but he says he didn’t feel he had to prove himself returning to it any more than he did on stage.

“I was desperate to collaborate with people, I was sort of tired of having to be funny all the time so that was a relief in a lot of ways, being able to look to other people, being able to collaborate. It was something I was very hungry for. I love acting, I’ve loved theatre my whole life and was sort of desperate to get back to that. So it was mostly relief.”

CLERICAL CALLING

It could have turned out differently - as a young boy, Burnham considered a career in the clergy. “I was nine or ten. But that is something I could totally in another life see myself doing for sure. I feel a kinship with that profession. I feel like a pretty contemplative person and I feel a little isolated. I also like to speak to people. I like to wrestle with ideas, I am a little bit in my head. The first place where I got to think about big things and talk about things, was in church. I’ve had a strange relationship with God and belief but really come back around realising I feel very close to that. I like to go to churches whenever I’m in a city, I like to go to churches and sit.”

With Eighth Grade winning Writer’s Guild of America and Independent Spirit Awards earlier this year, the offers are no doubt coming in. He’s writing another screenplay, but also keen to explore acting and return to the drama that fired his imagination as a young boy.

I would love to. I’m trying to get back into that. It’s an itch I haven’t scratched in a while and it would be really wonderful to do.”

Eighth Grade is in cinemas on Friday

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