Bo Burnham’s following probably knows him best as the funnyman behind comedy songs published on a still-nascent YouTube, or his more recent Netflix special “Make Happy.” He’s the guy who does parody Kanye West rants. He wouldn’t necessarily be pegged as an exciting cinematic voice.
But as a multiplatform artist who’s dabbled in poetry and an MTV comedy series and has even directed Chris Rock’s stand-up comeback “Tamborine,” it makes perfect sense that Burnham would try his hand at filmmaking.
“I was like, ‘I’m really stressed out about performing, and I just wanna write something,’ ” Burnham said in an interview with The Daily Californian.
“I’m gonna write a script that I know I can direct. I’m gonna write a script to my strengths, a simple, emotional story or whatever,” Burnham said.
That story turned out to be “Eighth Grade,” a bildungsroman for the internet age, created by one of its own constituents. A former YouTube star himself, Burnham sought to tell a contemporary coming-of-age story that treats the internet with careful restraint.
“There’s a middle ground in the way that (the internet is) just integrated into all of our lives; it’s just kind of changing the way we interact with ourselves and each other,” said Burnham, a self-proclaimed “elder of the internet generation.”
“But it isn’t the actual substantive thing, it’s not a plot point — it’s an atmosphere. It’s a culture within which a story happens,” Burnham continued.
No character hurls their phone into the ocean in a moment of catharsis, Burnham noted. Rather, students at a school assembly heckle with shouts of “LeBron James” in a drawl that’s recognizable to anyone who remembers Vine. The result is a film that maturely treats the internet as set dressing. Well, as maturely as possible — after all, it’s a film about the awkwardness, horrors and joys of eighth grade.
There to experience it all is Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher in a powerhouse turn that Burnham described as “(like) working with Philip Seymour Hoffman.” Perhaps best known for voicing Agnes in the “Despicable Me” franchise, Fisher asserts herself as a dramatic force to be reckoned with.
Despite her youth, Kayla doles out pearls of “wisdom” on her YouTube channel to an audience of none. “Be yourself,” she futilely advises. As any youngster knows, that’s easier said than done, especially when one’s eighth-grade superlative is “most quiet,” as Kayla’s is. To that effect, “Eighth Grade” captures the interiority of an eighth-grade girl with microscopic focus, which is a credit to Burnham’s screenwriting.
Sure, it’s counterintuitive that a 27-year-old man would effectively write a teenage girl with the detail of a documentary, but Kayla’s interiority came naturally to Burnham.
“I really understood someone that’s very self conscious about what they sound like, and is trying to sound like something and failing to sound like that, and doubling back on their thoughts,” Burnham explained.
“Eighth Grade” is nothing if not accurate in its dramatization of adolescence, and with that comes an unflinching determination to embrace darkness and levity in equal measure. For all the film’s comedy, the third act takes a bleak turn in a scene involving sexual coercion that proves deeply unsettling to watch.
“Sometimes when you look at a thing honestly, it’s dark. And sometimes when you look at a thing honestly, it’s funny. Sometimes when you look at a thing honestly, it is both,” Burnham said. The film’s preference for sincerity results in a balance across a spectrum of tones — amid the inherent seriousness of a school shooting drill, Burnham finds room for a joke or two, without inordinately making light of the situation.
Yet Burnham himself doesn’t know on what ears his humor might land. “I literally was just making this movie going like, ‘This might just be for me,’ ” he said. But if anything, Burnham hopes that parents might find “Eighth Grade” to be informative.
“A lot of adults — 30-, 40-year-olds — are, with young kids, very confused about what’s happening. And I hope this gives them just a little bit of an insight. It’s scarier than you’d think, but your kids are stronger than you think,” Burnham said.
In this sense, the appeal of “Eighth Grade” is that it holds value for a wide gamut of audiences — the middle schooler on the cusp of high school, their family and even the young adult feeling nostalgic for the most awkward years of their lives.
“We wanted to make some stylized naturalism — that was our hope, something in that space,” Burnham said. Following modern coming-of-age classics such as “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird” is no easy feat, but with “Eighth Grade,” Burnham succeeds, honestly capturing the hyper-reality of adolescence.
Not bad for a debut feature.