MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
OK, if I say eighth grade, what comes to mind - Drama? awkwardness? Please let me think about anything but that? A new film out this week dares you to walk those halls once again, but this time in the age of Instagram. The film is called "Eighth Grade," and it tells the story of Kayla, a shy 13-year-old girl in the last weeks of eighth grade navigating the turbulent waters of pool parties, school dances, awkward romantic advances and underappreciated video blog. And, unlike previous generations, she has to do all of this in a sea of social media.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EIGHTH GRADE")
ELSIE FISHER: (As Kayla) Hey, guys. It's Kayla, back with another video. So the topic of today's video is being yourself. Being yourself can be hard, and it's, like, aren't I always being myself? And, yeah, for sure. But being yourself is, like, not changing yourself to impress someone else.
MARTIN: The film was written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham. And, like the film's protagonist, Burnam spent some of his teen years posting to YouTube.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BO BURNHAM: (Singing) 'Cause I'm Bo, yo. I'm the greatest rapper ever, and whether you - whether - whether you think you're better or not - you're better, you're not - don't need a sweater - I'm hot. If I can't think of another rhyme, then I ought to think of one.
MARTIN: But, unlike Kayla, Burnham's comedy videos went viral and launched his career as a stand-up comedian. Now, 10 years and many millions of views later, Burnham has made his directorial debut with "Eighth Grade." The film is already generating a lot of buzz and some excellent reviews. And so we're really glad that Bo Burnham is with us now from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, Calif., to tell us more.
Bo Burnham, congratulations. Thanks so much for talking with us.
BURNHAM: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
MARTIN: So let me just get this out of the way for people who are wondering. You are a grown man now. You're...
BURNHAM: I am, yes. I am growing - but, yes, 27.
MARTIN: Growing, 27, got your driver's license and...
MARTIN: ...All of that good stuff. So what made you decide to tell a story through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl for your first feature?
BURNHAM: You know, I was just really setting out to try to tell a story about what I was feeling at the time, which is I was feeling anxious, and I feel like it was linked to the Internet somehow. And, you know, I wanted to talk about what it felt like to be alive right now. And, to me, that felt confusing and weird and strange and anxious and unsure. And so I realized that I was describing "Eighth Grade" at a certain point.
So I went online to watch a bunch of videos of young people talking about themselves. And the boys tended to talk about videogames, and the girls tended to talk about their souls. So it was, like, OK. I think it's probably (laughter) going to be about a girl. And I also wanted to make a movie about this age that didn't feel nostalgic and wasn't a memory. I like nostalgic movies, but I wanted this to be visceral and present. And it being a girl sort of forced me to not be able to project my own experience on this. This isn't a story about my younger self.
MARTIN: Well, I confess that I have an in-house focus group. I have two people in my house who just finished eighth grade...
MARTIN: And one of them is a girl. And I...
BURNHAM: In-house focus group - I like that.
MARTIN: And I took her to see the film - the screening. And I asked her if it rang true. Like, there was a particular moment when the principal was dabbing, you know, trying to be cool. And I said, gee, that seems kind of corny. And she said, but so very accurate (laughter).
BURNHAM: Yeah. Yeah. The corny is intentional. There's - the cringe is meant to - yeah. We're trying to honestly portray kids and then honestly portray how adults have no idea what kids are going through (laughter).
MARTIN: Let me just play this scene from the film where Kayla is shadowing a group of older high school kids at the mall. She's hanging with them, both studying them and wanting very much to be a part of them, which is also something that very - rings very true at that age. And I just want to play a clip from where the older kids are talking about the differences even in their age group from what they saw when they were in eighth grade. Let me just play that. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EIGHTH GRADE")
DANIEL ZOLGHADRI: (As Riley) She's a different generation than us. She's...
EMILY ROBINSON: (As Olivia) She's not a different generation.
ZOLGHADRI: (As Riley) Yeah, she is.
ROBINSON: (As Olivia) She's four years younger than us. I mean...
ZOLGHADRI: (As Riley) OK. But people who were, like, four years older than us felt like [expletive] 50 years old.
ROBINSON: (As Olivia) That's, like, blatantly not true.
ZOLGHADRI: (As Riley) Your sister?
ROBINSON: (As Olivia) My sister just sucks.
ZOLGHADRI: (As Riley) OK. But, like, on top of that, she didn't have Twitter in middle school, and we did. That made us different.
ROBINSON: (As Olivia) Kayla, you're not different than us.
ZOLGHADRI: (As Riley) Well, yeah - when did you get Snapchat, what grade?
FISHER: (As Kayla) Fifth grade.
ZOLGHADRI: (As Riley) Fifth grade?
IMANI LEWIS: (As Aniyah) Jesus.
ZOLGHADRI: (As Riley) What?
MARTIN: OK, tell me about that scene.
BURNHAM: I had felt a disconnect from people - you know, I had felt as close to people 10 years older than me as I did to people three years younger than me because I realized that, like, these once-in-a-generation sort of social innovations were happening every six to eight months. So it was, like, you know, if generations were defined by, I don't know, a Walkman, and then, like, vinyl, now these new, radical changes were happening every, you know, eight, 12 months. And so my thought was, maybe they still are happening once a generation, and the generations (laughter) are - gaps are just shrinking.
When I was on social media, it was, like, MySpace, which was, like, OK, post a profile picture of yourself, and list some of your interests, and list your friends. And now it's Instagram, Twitter. What do you look like? What are you thinking? What do you look like? What are you thinking? Those are really baser, deeper, stranger questions. And the way kids interface with it, I think, changes the way they feel about the world and themselves. So I'm just interested in that. I don't think these things are decorative and trends. I think that - I think they'll reach much deeper than that.
MARTIN: What is motivating your interest in this? I mean, because, on the one hand - I'll just be honest. Looking at this as a parent, I'm thinking, OK. What do I do? What do I do about this? Like, what do I do about this? And I don't think that's your motivation. But I don't feel like your motivation is simply let me just record and document this. I feel like, as an artist, you're pointing us in a certain direction of concern. Does that fair to - is that...
BURNHAM: Yeah, well...
MARTIN: Is that fair? So what would that be?
BURNHAM: I think - so - well, I think I want to subjectively document it, which is different than, like, objectively documenting it like a, you know, anthropologist or anything. I think I'm trying to describe honestly what it feels like for me. And that's the truth. I'm doing this on behalf of really myself.
I mean, I felt like the Internet wasn't being represented correctly. There's so much commentary on the Internet. There's so much commentary about the Internet. And, for me, we're just not at a place where we've even gathered the information to have those conversations, so I just kind of wanted to do some emotional inventory and say, this is what it feels like personally, on a personal level. So we can maybe have a conversation about the Internet that's a little more subtle than Russia, you know, or cyberbullying.
You know, because that's, like, how we talk about the Internet, and there's a much, much subtler conversation about, you know, how it makes us feel in our tummy, you know, and the weird choice we have at the end of the night between every piece of information in the history of the world on our phones and the back of our eyelids. That's a really intense, weird sort of thing to be swinging between.
MARTIN: And it's interesting, too, because your experience with the Internet is that it - you get the best of it and the worst of it in some ways. I mean, you got this marvelous exposure for something that just started out as kind of a fun personal project, and yet, it did kind of change your life, right?
BURNHAM: Yes. I mean, I wouldn't be here without it. And that's the thing about the Internet. It'd be so much easier to address if it was just bad. If it was just bad, we'd just tell the kids and everybody to get off their phones. But the truth is, it is - it just deepens every possible thing, the good and the bad. It's giving exposure to voices that would not be heard. It's giving visibility to people that wouldn't be heard. And it's setting the country on fire. We're connected more than ever, and we're lonelier, and we're numb, and we're stimulated. You know, we're self-expressing and we're self-objectifying. So it's all of the things, which is confusing to me and why I felt like I just wanted to explore it subjectively from emotional standpoint.
MARTIN: That's Bo Burnham. He's a comedian, screenwriter and director. His new film, "Eighth Grade," is in theaters now. He was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, Calif.
Bo Burnham, thanks so much for talking with us.
BURNHAM: Thank you, Michel. Appreciate it.
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