It was almost impossible to tell at points during the premier whether the audience for Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville was rolling in their seats with laughter or squirming in empathetic awkwardness. Which was kind of the point, for the writer-director.
“The story of being young is inarticulate,” says Burnham, who at 27 has already spent more than a decade as a viral Internet sensation and musical stand-up comedian. “I wanted it to feel like the thoughts of kids, which are forming; of people forming.”
The film, Burnham’s feature-length directorial debut, follows Kayla Day (Elsi Fisher, Despicable Me) as she navigates her final week as a middle schooler. “You’re so transparent at that age,” Burnham says. “I’ve learned as an adult to conceal the inner workings of how I see and present myself. At that age, it’s a little bit more open.”
Fisher’s performance of an insecure, anxious teen balancing personal growth and social conformity belies how talented an actor she has to be to pull that off. Grown adults were reduced to nervous giggling, wincing in their chairs, rooting for her character. Burnham praises the young actor, saying he screened no one else more than twice, but Fisher seven times just to prove to himself she could show up with that quality of performance every day. “Every other kid played it like a confident kid trying to be shy, and she played it like a shy kid trying to be confident, which it is.”
While the setting of the film is never explicitly stated, eagle-eyed Westchesterites will know Kayla is a local: several scenes were filmed in the White Plains Galleria Mall, while exterior shots utilized the Palisades Center just across the river. “The exterior of the Palisades is just a citadel to capitalism,” Burnham says. “The Galleria feels like a mall.”
Fans of Burnham’s comedy will not be surprised to learn the film is rated R, though there were a surprising number of eighth graders in attendance who gave some of the evening’s most enthusiastic applause. When asked why he made a movie the target audience couldn’t attend unsupervised, Burnham was his typical brand of wryly insightful:
“The target audience is kind of me.…I don’t think Apollo 13 can only be viewed by astronauts. Eighth Grade is rated R because eighth grade is rated R. Eighth graders say, ‘Fuck.’” He later clarifies, “I never cared about making a YA movie. I didn’t want to make a film to be viewed by eighth graders; I wanted to make a film that was true to that experience.”
Readers can check out Eighth Grade at the Jacob Burns Film Center for at least the next three weeks, with an extended run remaining a possibility.