If you haven’t seen Eighth Grade yet, what are you waiting for? Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is a deft mixture of cringes and compassion, funny because it’s true, and devastating for the same reason, often at the same time. So simultaneously awkward and sweet is this movie that it suggested to me what Welcome to the Dollhouse would have been like with a heaping side of empathy.
If the film itself is astonishing, the performance at its center is downright miraculous. Elsie Fisher, now 15, plays Kayla, who hasn’t managed to find a way to fit in during her entire eighth grade year. But she’s still trying even in her last week of eighth grade, the timeframe depicted in the film. She is gawky but determined to overcome her anxiety. So spirited is the performance that you can’t help but root for her. It’s also multifaceted—we watch Kayla stumble through IRL encounters, but talk up her social acuity in a series of vlogs she posts on YouTube. She trips over her own obsequiousness in front of popular kids but disdains the one person in her life who worships her unconditionally, her dad Mark (played by Josh Hamilton). We are all several people, depending on the situation, and Eighth Grade has the audacity to explore the pimples-and-all fullness of a 13-year-old girl. And for depicting it with such specificity, Fisher is as much of a filmmaker as Burnham here.
Kayla’s story starts to look up when she’s taken under the wing of a friendly high school student, Olivia (Emily Robinson), and gets introduced to her social circle, including her socially conscious friend Aniyah (Imani Lewis). The relationship provides Kayla with the kind of maternal companionship she’s lacking (her mother isn’t in the picture for unspecified reasons), and it gives viewers a sense of relief after watching Kayla endure a series of micro-humiliations.
Fisher, Robinson, and Lewis visited the Jezebel office on Friday to discuss the making of Eighth Grade and what the film means to them. Who better to discuss this movie than teens themselves (Robinson and Lewis are both 19), particularly those who are in it. The ensuing conversation touched on the film’s place in the teen movie canon, its potential feminism, its broader implications, and a scene depicting sexual coercion. Fisher, by the way, is nowhere nearly as awkward as Kayla, though I did recognize a few mannerisms in our meeting that I saw on screen (she occasionally made pointy gun fingers to emphasize some of her points, for example). Very minor spoilers follow in the edited and condensed transcript of our chat below.
JEZEBEL: Elsie, I don’t understand how you do what you do.
ELSIE FISHER: I don’t either. Kayla’s story very much resonates with me, so getting her anxiety, feeling that, empathizing with her was just kinda intuitive. I don’t know.
How do you trip over words like you do on camera?
Elsie: That’s just how I talk. I mean, I have a lot of trouble articulating. Maybe not when we do these things, but like, that’s how I’ve talked for a lot of my life, especially in my own eighth grade year. So, like, her struggle to articulate is something I really relate to.
EMILY ROBINSON: But most of the stuttering was written [in the script]. So, she has, as Bo says, a very technical performance. It’s super impressive.
What do you all think of the movie?
IMANI LEWIS: I think it’s an amazing piece. Although, I can’t relate too heavily around eighth grade with suffering that anxiety—it wasn’t until I started high school and getting out of high school and meeting all these new people that I started realizing, Oh my god I have really intense anxiety.
Emily, did you relate to the movie?
Emily: Absolutely. I deal with anxiety, so it’s painfully relatable. But I think what’s special about the Oliva/Kayla bond is that, to me, Olivia in middle school was very much Kayla and had a very similar experience and that’s why they hit it off. I very much related to Olivia and still relate to Kayla.
Imani, your character stands out because Kayla is so much in her own world that there isn’t much sense of the bigger picture. Aniyah is socially conscious. You were wearing a gold charm that said, “FEMINIST” around your neck, right?
Imani: Yeah. Very woke. It was so easy to portray that character because I am a very outgoing person, but that’s something that had to grow over time.
Emily: A lot what Aniyah became was brought to life by you. You wore a “FEMINIST” sweatshirt to set. And that’s what inspired the feminist necklace.
Do you think of this movie as feminist?
Imani: I don’t know if I’d say the movie itself was feminist, but all the female characters brought something different to the table. It also showed different perspectives one female can share. In one girl, you can see somebody that suffers from anxiety; [in another] somebody that overcame anxiety, and then somebody that becomes outgoing. I feel like that’s a sequence of steps in a woman’s life. That’s feminism itself: Starting from one place and then growing as a female and learning your own anatomy.
Emily: I think what does make it feminist is seeing these very nuanced and full women and girls. I think seeing people grow and struggle and not have everything together, but also be completely together in ways that adults will never have…The messiness of that is feminist because it’s real. It’s an honest portrayal of a girl and I think we don’t often see that. It doesn’t pander to Kayla. It doesn’t cut her off. It’s showing her as she is.
Elsie: That’s absolutely right. I wouldn’t call the movie overtly feminist, but in a subtler, truer sense, it is. I think…uh, yeah. What these two said is correct.
What do you make of the fact that this came from the brain of a man?
Elsie: People talk about that all the time. Bo wasn’t writing about a 13-year-old girl. He was writing about how he felt. A conduit for that was a 13-year-old girl. I think everyone is entitled to write a story about how they feel. It doesn’t matter whether he’s a man or she’s a girl. Write about something truthful and honest. That’s what really matters, I think.
Emily: And Bo really did handle this with such care. He really does care about Kayla, and I think because of that there’s such heart in it and it doesn’t feel manipulative or trying to tell a story about a woman. It’s just the story he had to tell.
Imani: If I remember correctly, he said that in [the character of Kayla’s father], he sees so much of his mother. He said as he was writing, he was talking to his girlfriend: “Tell me if I’m straying. Tell me if I’m not spot-on.” And he’s working with a bunch of females so of course he’s going to get their input. “Are you comfortable with this? How does this feel?”
Emily: And, Elsie, you ultimately have co-authorship over Kayla.
Elsie: Bo always gave me permission to correct him if anything was wrong. And nothing was wrong.
Have you thought about this movie in the bigger scheme of the teen movie genre, and do you think it’s as exceptional as most critics say that it is?
Imani: I think it’s totally different from every movie you’ve ever seen capturing the life of a teenager.
Elsie: It’s definitely not a teen movie.
Imani: Definitely not. It’s a people movie. It’s a human movie. Like Bo said, it’s not just for eighth graders. It’s not just for high schoolers.
Elsie: My 11-year-old brother enjoyed it.
Emily: And my 70-year-old dad was like, “I’m Kayla!” I was like, “I know, we all are.” It forces you to become her in the movie, in a way, where you’re very much on the journey.
Elsie: I think the beautiful thing about the movie is that if you look you can probably find yourself in all the characters. That shows that everyone is so similar. We like to categorize ourselves, but we’re all just people and we’re feeling the same things.
Did Bo ask you to watch any movies to prepare for your roles?
Elsie: No. He just wanted us to be honest. He asked for us to look to our real-life experiences, so eighth grade year.
What was eighth grade like for everybody?
Elsie: Mine sucked. I was starting to open up socially but also I had no friends. I was exploring myself artistically, but I feel like every other year is an in-between year for me and that was an in-between year.
Did you go to a public school?
Emily: I went to a weird, tiny school for people with weird schedules.
Because of your acting career?
Emily: Yeah, so I had five kids in my class and it was just very odd. I was a nerd who didn’t know how to engage with people…
Emily: …and thought that everyone hated me and I was like, “Oh no cool, we’re friends? We’re gonna hang? Cool! Okay! Bye!”
Emily: I remember having a really awkward haircut and getting really red in gym class.
Imani: I was the polar opposite. Everybody loved me. Quite social, very in touch with myself. I knew everybody, everybody knew me. I was in student council, the debate team, Arista honor society. I was very in tune. I had pins and blazers.
Emily: I did a lot of clubs, but I didn’t think I was cool. I started a lit mag. I was very involved, but not in a cool way. In a dorky/nerdy way.
Imani: I was too, but I was like, “I don’t care. I’m living my truth. I know who I am.” It wasn’t until I got older, when you start caring about what people think, that I was like, “Why would you put on this outfit? And I knew I was going to meet all these people today…”
When you talk about caring what people think, the three of you are in a business where what people think determines your career path in an often direct way. Getting people to like you is part of your work, so that you can get more work. Have you thought about that? How do you cope with it?
Elsie: I’m constantly thinking about it. It’s not healthy. I’ve always been anxious. I was a weird kid that acted out for attention because I was anxious that people were looking at me. It was not a good way of coping. I wanted to get people to look at me, but also I did not want people looking at me. I think about it an unhealthy amount, just because I like to overthink things.
Do you have coping mechanisms?
Elsie: No. I want to say I do because people ask me and I want to empathize with them so I’ll just bullshit something out of my mouth, but if I’m being honest, I lie awake at night just scrolling through Instagram like, “Oh God. Am I saying the wrong thing? Am I doing the wrong thing? Oh my God I’m gonna die.”
Emily: To me, acting itself is a way I cope with my anxiety in general. It’s a place I can go and pretend to be super confident or can live out experiences that I haven’t necessarily experienced or don’t feel comfortable with. It’s a way to explore the world with someone who isn’t me in a way that’s very safe and comforting. That said, the business part of it and the auditioning part of it and meeting people, that’s very stressful.
Elsie: Auditions are the worst!
Imani: The worst ever!
Emily: There’s so much work and anxiety [before an audition], but the way I cope with it is once it’s done, you move on. It’s just in the past. It’s true for the movie, too: something feels so big and so important, and a week later you kind of forget that it happened. That’s what’s beautiful about having lived this anxiety that is eighth grade. It’s like, “Oh my God, yes, I remember fighting with this one girl and leaving school crying over this writing project we had to do as a group.” And then you’re forgetting how much it impacted you mentally.
I wonder as young actors, how much do you think about the idea that Hollywood is brutal to people like you? We’ve seen so many downfalls of successful people happen right before our eyes. Do you talk to your families about staying on the right track?
Elsie: I sympathize with child actors who turn into rocky adults. It’s tough shit, man. Especially for Disney stars, they’re on the clock all the time. Sometimes using substances or acting out is your escape from that. I guess I’m aware of it, but the best thing we can do is just be honest with our families and take steps to put our mental health first.
Imani: My family was like, “Imani, are you sure you want to do this? I don’t want to see you lashing out, I don’t want to see you on the news, I don’t want to see you on drugs.” I wasn’t thinking that far. I was like, “I’m in it for the art.” You have to keep strong people that genuinely love you and want to see you flourish around you. Without my manager, I don’t know where I would be right now.
Emily: I’ve been really lucky because my parents are the most supportive and kind and grounding people that have really helped me have a clear head. I started doing this when I was young. They didn’t know what the business was and we kind of looked at it like my after-school soccer. It was such a hobby and then I realized, “Oh I have to do this forever,” because it’s the best. I’ve had the privilege of working with really great people.
Elsie, do you have any thoughts about your acne being visible on screen?
Elsie: I don’t know, people call me “brave” for it, but it’s like, “…Thanks.” It’s fine. I am wearing makeup in the movie a little bit but that’s just my look, so cool. I hope other people are more open to having it onscreen after this, though. I think a lot of teens might not get cast because they do have acne, so hopefully after this people will be like, “Oh you can have a good character that has acne.” They don’t have to be picture-perfect.
Do you have a hard time watching what Kayla goes through?
Elsie: Not so much. I haven’t watched the movie in a while because there’s only so many times you can watch a movie. I see Kayla very much as her own person. She is not me. I cannot watch videos of myself being myself so the one part I can’t watch is the chicken nugget scene. We have the Rick and Morty exchange. That was improv’ed. I didn’t know where to draw from for that and I was just myself and it’s just the worst thing ever.
I think it’s the best thing ever. Can you tell me what was the hardest scene to film?
Elsie: It’s not an exciting answer but it’s truthful: After the car scene when I’m running back up to my room, that was the hardest scene just because it was physically stressful. People think the pool scene must have been hell to film because I look so anxious, but it’s like, “Nah,” it was fun. Also on the last day we spent so much of the time running. After the camera pans to me after Kennedy and her mom drive away, I was supposed to run home. So we ran for the entire last day and Bo cut it all!
The car scene you mentioned features an attempt to coerce Kayla into sex by Olivia’s friend Riley (Daniel Zolghadri). What was that like to film, and will you all talk to me about what it means to put something like that in this movie?
Elsie: Filming the car scene was pretty low key. I had the script in my lap. I should stop saying that. There were like six people in the car and Daniel’s just an amazing performer. I thought it was good to portray this onscreen and just be honest about a situation that’s probably encountered by a lot more people. It’s not always straight-up assault. It can be emotional and mental manipulation at first.
Imani: That scene was super intense but so vital. It was a pivotal moment. I watched Kayla build this confidence within herself and then she made her last video, like, “I don’t think I’m going to be making these videos anymore.” I felt like everything she had taught herself completely went down the drain because she didn’t know what to do in that moment. So many girls relate to that, from my experience. It’s so scary. You don’t want to come off like a nerd or inferior, but you already feel inferior because you’re next to somebody who has far more experience than you do.
Elsie: Yeah, Riley is manipulating her into thinking he knows what’s up when she thinks she knows so much because she’s making the videos but she can’t put them into practice.
Emily: I think it’s really powerful that she does say no, but she also says, “Sorry.” She feels bad. And it’s just an experience that many people unfortunately have. It’s quote-unquote small enough that “nothing happens,” but yet it’s still so devastating.
It seemed to shake her out of her interest in her crush Aiden (Luke Prael), who asks her if she gives blowjobs.
Emily: That’s so real when you’re going through middle school. She mentions she has nudes and then there’s the whole thing with oral. There’s all of this talk like, “Oh yeah, I’m comfortable with that,” and the scrambling to see what she projected that she might get herself into. There’s this excitement of discovering what things are and being grossed out and terrified. But the difference between the theoretical and the actual is huge.
I’m curious about what everyone things about this, but particularly Imani: What were your impressions of how the movie handles race? I mean to take nothing away from this fabulous movie, but it is yet another movie that centers whiteness and keeps people of color on the periphery. You’re one of those people.
Imani: It was very obvious to me when I got to set. It was like, “Okay…It’s just me? All right.” Pat on the back, you made it. I feel like it’s a hurdle. I’m just so grateful that her character was so intellectually inclined. She wasn’t comic relief. She wasn’t the stereotypical loud, obnoxious black girl. She’s very woke in a sense. I see that being portrayed more often in films, but for a long time I didn’t see that. I like Aniyah. My family watched the movie like, “So…are you the only black girl here?” On set, I didn’t feel like a raisin in a bowl of milk. I didn’t feel like the oddball. It was very family-oriented.
Elsie: The set was like a summer camp. It was fun.
Imani: Especially the mall scene.
Do kids still go to the mall to hang out?
Imani: I do. Well, I can’t now. “Are you in Star?” I get that a lot.
The movie is rated R, so eighth graders technically aren’t allowed to see it. What feedback are you getting and from whom?
Elsie: We’ve gotten a lot of stuff from adults, but eighth graders have seen it. They’ve responded so amazingly. I feel so lucky. Eighth graders can see it, they just have to go with their parents and sit on opposite ends of the theater, talk about it afterwards. I’m glad eighth graders can relate. That’s something I was worried about. It’s so close to the time period and reflecting back while you’re still going through it is tough. Admitting your own faults and struggles is tough, especially for eighth grade. You can make fun of yourself last year but when you’re still in it, it’s like, “Oh God no, leave me alone.”
Emily: This movie isn’t going to show eighth graders anything that they haven’t seen before.
Elsie: People complain about it, like, “Why don’t you make a PG-13 cut?” Well, that would just not be honest. Real-life eighth grade is rated R. So how about you actually fix the rating system? Or go next door and watch people get shot.