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The tribulations of ‘Eighth Grade’ are cringe-worthy, and that’s just how Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher like it

The tribulations of ‘Eighth Grade’ are cringe-worthy, and that’s just how Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher like it
Writer-director Bo Burnham and actress Elsie Fisher bonded immediately when production started on "Eighth Grade." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“Eighth Grade” is a wonderful movie about a terrible time, full of casual ruthlessness and shattering crushes. (To paraphrase a line about the 1960s, if you loved middle school, you don’t remember it.) Writer-director Bo Burnham centers the film on Kayla, a girl in her last week of that miserable year. And while the film is very funny, Burnham has created a world that’s ultimately gentle instead of sharp.

As embodied by Elsie Fisher, who started shooting a week after she herself graduated eighth grade, Kayla is self-conscious and desperate to belong, and tries using social media to make connections — like anyone her age, and many beyond. Her efforts to put her thoughts out in the world are met with indifference, but she perseveres nonetheless, for she is, in her own tremulous way, a tremendously brave soul.

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Fisher, now 15, embodies Kayla with such rawness and precision that the film almost feels like a documentary; viewers cringe in response to what’s happening onscreen. Her mistakes are our mistakes; her victories, tiny and fleeting though they may be, are ours as well. This is a grown-up movie about a young girl and was rated R for its accuracy, but Burnham had a remedy. He and A24, the film’s production company, held no-ratings-enforced screenings of the film in every state.

From left: Fred Hechinger, Daniel Zolghadri, Elsie Fisher, Emily Robinson and Imani Lewis in a scene from "Eighth Grade."
From left: Fred Hechinger, Daniel Zolghadri, Elsie Fisher, Emily Robinson and Imani Lewis in a scene from "Eighth Grade." (A24)

Of course, middle-schoolers can figure out a way to see movies no matter what the obstacles are. Adults managed to go too. It’s unclear who related more; the film earned a 99% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is getting some early awards attention as well. Burnham recently earned a Gotham nomination for breakthrough director, Fisher for breakthrough actor.

On a recent day on a West Hollywood rooftop, Burnham and Fisher exhibited a kind of sibling relationship, when the siblings are far apart enough in age to actually like each other. Inside jokes and teasing abounded, as did an emphatic mutual admiration that helped them create the film’s authenticity.

When asked about how she created Kayla, Fisher noted, “I always feel like a fraud in acting, because I don’t have a process, it’s just about diving in for me. With Kayla, though, it was just being honest with each scene, and acting how I would act, but also incorporating my image of her into those actions, I guess? And just referring to Bo also, because Kayla’s a collaboration between us.”

She was thankful for that collaborative spirit, “because I feel like oftentimes a lot of directors are kind of arm’s length from the actors, but it felt like he was in it with me.”

Fisher has been acting for 10 years. Or as she put it, “A fourth of the way to retirement, baby.”

“Is that what it is?” Burnham asked.

“I don’t know, 40 years,” she said. “I looked it up just to make that joke.” That set her off giggling.

Burnham recalled thinking that he’d have to work to establish trust with Fisher before shooting began, but, as it turned out, no work was necessary. “I felt like we understood each other right away,” he said.

“I was immediately comfortable with him,” Fisher agreed. “I mean, I thought he was cool because I knew his comedy —” Burnham, an early viral internet sensation, is also a comedian and actor — “but after the first audition, I’m like, this is a cool dude.”

Bo Burnham, left, and Elsie Fisher on the set of "Eighth Grade."
Bo Burnham, left, and Elsie Fisher on the set of "Eighth Grade." (Julieta Cervantes / A24)

Burnham said that Fisher was easy to work with “to a ridiculous degree. Incredibly reliable. Never got tired.”

Fisher added, “We would be at the end of our nine-hour workdays, and I’d be like, ‘C’mon guys, let’s keep going!’ And it’d be like, ‘That’s illegal, kid,’” referencing the child labor laws protecting young actors.

Fisher related to Kayla’s need to speak combined with her fear of saying anything wrong. “And the anxiety elements. I think she thinks a lot; I think a lot too. We’re both creative too.” Fisher created Kayla’s artwork, seen throughout the film. She turned to Burnham to see what else she and the character share. “You would know, you know both of us.”

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He added that they’re both introspective and smart. “They’re both very kind too. Genuinely kind.” The film is similarly kind; it’s what makes the many cringe-worthy moments bearable.

Burnham is always happy to hear about all the cringing, which he sees as a form of empathy. “Cringing means it’s affecting you in some way,” he said. “Of course, a movie about eighth grade is going to be cringing the whole time.” He and his star then started incorporating the word “cringe” into various holiday terms. The best, from Burnham: “We wish you a Merry Cringemas.” And a happy awards season.

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