Eighth Grade director Bo Burnham on the little movie that’s taking on Avengers: Endgame

Sharing an opening weekend with Avengers: Endgame, Eighth Grade is the small movie about massive things

If you see one movie this weekend, well let’s face it, it’s probably going to be Avengers: Endgame. But you should really see two. Also out now is a small independent movie called Eighth Grade and it’s not afraid to take on the big guns.

Following the week leading up to the middle school graduation of a young girl called Kayla Day the movie is a harrowing, heartbreaking, uplifting and portrait of what it’s like to be teenager in the era of social media (here’s our glowing review)

Director Bo Burnham wrote the movie based on his own experiences with anxiety and this authenticity comes through in spades. And far from feeling intimidated by sharing an opening weekend with the biggest film of the decade, Burnham laughs when we ask him about it and says he thinks it’s great. “I think Kayla has had probably bigger battles than that in her experience,” he tells Den of Geek.

We chat about being your own hero, the importance of feeling recognised and the specific hell of social media…

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Your movie is out in the UK the same day as Avengers: Endgame, which feels weirdly appropriate since your movie is kind of about a girl becoming her own hero. How do you feel about going up against the biggest movie of the decade? Did you have any say?

It’s funny! I did not have a say in it, no, that’s very funny. I think it’s great, I think Kayla has had probably bigger battles than that in her experience. But that’s hilarious. I feel good about it, I just feel honoured to be out there, I didn’t think this movie would get a release in the UK so I’m super happy to be released at all. Hopefully there’ll be some spill over from sold out screenings of Endgame and we’ll get some run off.

How did you develop the project and why did you opt to go for a female protagonist?

The development was really just writing and being interested in the internet and talking about young people and feeling like I hadn’t really seen this age group represented correctly and honestly and I felt like the internet wasn’t really being talked about in terms of how I was living with it and how it actually felt like it was.

It felt like any of the internet being portrayed felt finger wagging, or desperately cloying, or it felt like people who didn’t understand it trying to pander to it. So I was interested in portraying a young person living with it, and then observing kids on the internet, watching YouTube videos of people expressing themselves, young people expressing themselves on the internet.

The boys tended to talk about video games and the girls tended to talk about their souls. So it was like, ok, at that age, I just found more connection with the girls. I was interested in exploring my own feelings that I was going through at the time. I was struggling with anxiety. The type of kids that felt like they were feeling my anxiety and really struggling with it out loud were the girls. I wasn’t anxious as an eighth grade boy, my anxiety didn’t flip on until later in life. The girls’ self awareness is just switched on a little earlier.

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It’s so keenly observed that it seems to connect with everyone who sees it regardless of their age or gender.

That’s nice. It’s been really good that people have seen themselves in her that aren’t necessarily on the surface like her. I didn’t make this movie about my daughter or my sister or whoever, I made this movie about me. So I hope not just women but men can see themselves in Kayla. I think that a cowboy alone on his horse gets to be a metaphor for the human condition but why can’t a girl walking into a pool party be a metaphor for the human condition or a conduit for the human condition? So I hope she’s a big enough character to be able to be a stand in for anyone in any circumstance. It means a lot when I see people connecting to it.

The movie has 15 certificate in the UK which means you can’t go and see the film as an eighth grader. Did you have any feelings about that?

Yeah it was rated R in the US which really means they can’t see it. The truth is kids sneak into movies all the time so I’m not worried about them seeing it if they want to. It’s obviously ironic that if you portray a kid’s life honestly they can’t see it which is strange.

But I understand the impulse of people who want to protect kids from sensitive things. The issue is you’re not going to protect them, they have access to everything on their phone and their laptop so really what you’re taking away from them is the ability to see the things they’re going to be exposed to anyway in some kind of emotional context. Because the way they see it on the internet is completely devoid of context and narrative and that’s what kids need. We need to give them information they already have and give them emotional context for it. Bring your local children if you have the opportunity!

That’s part of what the movie’s about, like the scenes of Kayla Googling how to give a blow job…

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Yes exactly. Just because we’re weirded out by it and we don’t want to think about it as an adult culture – it’s happening, the kids are doing this and we need to talk to them about things. We need to give them a responsible space to learn about things and be exposed to things.

How much did the young cast improvise? DId they give you any advice about the dialogue?

They were able to improvise a little bit, not much. It’s less improvised than it appears and it’s a credit to the young actors that they’re giving technical, natural performances. It wasn’t just like ‘do your thing and I’ll figure out a movie!’ The advice thing was more like, it wasn’t out loud it was more like if things felt wrong I knew it was the script’s fault and I just tried to empower the kids to be themselves. I would ask them questions about things – did this feel right? Did this feel right? Originally Kayla was on Facebook and Elsie told me no one uses Facebook any more so I was definitely open to being corrected.

The film talks about young people’s mental health and social media. Do you think it’s had a big effect?

Yeah I think so, at least in terms of anxiety, i definitely think kids are more anxious for that reason. Or maybe we’re just seeing it more. I don’t know. But there’s definitely a specific hell to social media that feels sort of unbearable. But it’s not just kids it’s all of us. I feel like my mental health has declined because of social media in a way. They’re definitely a conduit to talk about certain things but I see myself in them. I see their struggles as my struggles in a lot of ways.

The gun training scene was shocking partly because everyone seemed so nonchalant. Is that something you particularly wanted to talk about?

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It’s just the world I grew up in. Columbine happened when I was in fifth grade and I just feel I was part of this school shooting generation. I’d  written that a few years before the debate was re-sparked in America. I had drills in school, and drills in schools do happen like that and there are videos of them online and the kids are bored and are laughing. It’s just the reality. Part of the point was not to comment on it but just to show that, meanwhile this is the white noise of these kids’ background. They have to live their life and also in the background is this hyper violent, hyper sexualised culture that’s just around them all the time.

What message would you like to the film to convey to young people who see it?

Really the hope is to get them to feel things and feel recognised. Yes, to feel recognised. Too many people are trying to teach kids things and not enough are trying to listen to them. I hope the film feels like they’re being heard and listened to more than taught anything

Do you think you’ll go and see Endgame?

Oh yeah for sure!

Eighth Grade is in UK cinemas now.