Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade by Brianna Ashby

Eighth Grade is a 2018 American comedy-drama film written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham (in his feature directorial debut). The coming-of-age story follows the life and struggles of an eighth-grader, played by Elsie Fisher, during her last week of classes before graduating to high school. She struggles with social anxiety but produces vlogs giving life advice.

Burnham was inspired by his own struggles with anxiety when he began writing the screenplay in 2014. He had difficulty finding funding for the project until 2016. Shooting began in Suffern and White Plains, New York, in summer 2017. Fisher was cast after Burnham noticed her on YouTube; she led a cast including Josh Hamilton and Emily Robinson. Themes include heavy use of social media, mental health in Generation Z and sexuality and consent.

It was released theatrically in the United States by A24 on July 13, 2018. Its R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) inspired criticism, as its decision blocked many eighth-grade viewers from seeing the film in theaters. In response, the distributors arranged free, unrated screenings across the U.S. ‘Eighth Grade’ completed its North American run grossing $13 million on a $2 million budget.

Comedian Bo Burnham, who had never directed a feature before, had suffered a number of panic attacks since 2013. While ‘feeling unsure about’ himself, he reflected on his notion that eighth grade is a crucial year for forming self-awareness: ‘I wanted to talk about anxiety and what it feels like to be alive right now, and what it is to be unsure and nervous. That felt more like middle school than high school to me. I think the country and the culture is going through an eighth-grade moment right now.’

Burnham was also inspired by observing a girl in a mall taking selfies while alone; he believed she was concerned about her appearance. Given his career started with producing YouTube videos, he also wanted to explore the life of a character whose videos have very small audiences. He decided his protagonist would be female after watching YouTube, saying, ‘the boys talk about Minecraft and the girls talk about their souls … probably half because girls are just actually maturing more quickly and half because culture asks way deeper questions of young women earlier than men.’ He also liked the idea of a female protagonist to avoid ‘projecting’ his personal memories of eighth grade as a male.

To write dialogue representing Generation Z, Burnham watched YouTube. Burnham’s personal views on the differences between Generation Z and its predecessors inspired a scene where the character Trevor theorizes access to social media at an early age molded the generation’s minds. Kayla and Mark’s relationship is based on Burnham’s relationship with his mother. Burnham viewed a teenager’s relationship with his or her parent as a stage where ‘You want independence, and you also want affirmation.’

Burnham did not cover up the natural look of Fisher’s skin. Fisher said she wore some make-up, but her acne was still visible. Her habit of ending conversations with ‘Gucci!’ was imitated by Burnham and others on set and incorporated in the film as the sign-off for Kayla’s video blogs. She described ‘Gucci’ as a tic, saying other habits such as slouching and rubbing her arm were also incorporated into the film. The filmmakers adopted Fisher’s advice that Facebook had fallen out of favor. Much of the content relating to it was changed to Instagram.

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