In Middle School, ‘You’re Trying to Build a Parachute as You’re Falling’

The director Bo Burnham discusses his new movie, Eighth Grade, and how kids cobble together their identities, on the internet and off.

Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher on the set of Eighth Grade (Linda Kallerus / A24)

Social media has now been around long enough that teens who grew up with it are now adults who can make art about that experience. If stereotypes about young people and the internet were true, one might expect such art to be narcissistic or shallow or Instagrammy. But Eighth Grade, a new movie written and directed by Bo Burnham, a former YouTube star, is generous and deep, and makes room for all the facets of its protagonist’s self, not just the shiniest, most camera-ready ones.

In the film, a 13-year-old girl named Kayla is feeling her way through the dark forest of middle-school social life. On-screen, the scenery keeps changing: How should she act in the classroom? At a popular classmate’s pool party? At the mall with a new group of friends? And is she a totally different person on the internet, in the vlogs she makes in which she offers advice and pep talks? “Being yourself can be hard,”she says, “and it’s like, ‘Aren’t I always being myself?’” Kayla’s sweet and stumbling attempts to answer that question in these different scenarios—in real life and online—are the driving force of the movie.

Burnham, like Kayla, was extremely online in his youth; unlike Kayla, he got famous for it—YouTube videos he shot of himself performing funny songs led to a comedy career, and now a film career. What a life lived publicly online seems to have given Burnham is the humility not to present himself as an expert on “kids these days” or as a moral authority on the dangers of social media. The beauty of the internet, he says, is that kids are telling and showing the world what their lives are like, and to understand them, one need only pay attention.

I spoke to Burnham about what makes middle school a unique phase of life, and all the varied social arenas kids have to navigate while trying to figure out who they are. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

Julie Beck: I feel like it’s really rare to see a coming-of-age story set in middle school. It’s much more often high school or even college. What was compelling to you about this age in particular? Why go for middle school?

Bo Burnham: I think eighth grade is a time where your self-awareness is just flicked on like a light. All of a sudden you look at yourself and you’re like, “Oh my God, have I been this the whole time?” And then you’re trying to build a parachute as you’re falling.

There’s a transparency to the way the kids socialize at that age that I think is very beautiful. Who you are, who you’re trying to be, and how you’re trying to be it are all very clean and clear and visible. You’re not really fooling anybody.

Beck: Whereas later in your teenhood you think there’s more obfuscation?

Burnham: Yeah. We just start to smooth it over and it starts to look like one piece. By the time we’re adults, we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re just one person, and I don’t think it’s true. I think they’re living a more honest, true version of what we all are.

Beck: Which is what?

Burnham: We’re lying, we’re performing, we’re desperate for attention and love, and trying to negotiate the world. With kids, it feels like a grandfather clock. You can see into it, you can see the mechanisms of it.

I wanted to make a movie about people expressing themselves on the internet. When 30-year-olds post on the internet, we just hate them because it’s like, “Ugh, why are you doing this?” But when a 13-year-old does it, you’re like, “Aw, you’re just trying to be cool.” But we’re all just trying to be cool, so maybe we can understand where it’s coming from.

Beck: How much did you talk to current teens, and to women and girls in particular, about what that age is or was like for them?

Burnham: The good thing is, if you want to learn about kids this age now, they’re posting everything about themselves online. So I was watching hundreds of videos of girls talking about their life and their experience. It’s almost better than me being able to talk to them because it’s not on my turf, it’s on their YouTube channel, with 20 subscribers. I was able to observe and take that in without it being in the format of: Okay, you’re talking to an adult about your experience.

Beck: It’s sort of like the scientific principle where if you’re observing the thing, then you’re changing it.

Burnham: It is exactly that. That observing does change it. Of course they think they’re being observed by all their subscribers. But that change felt true and honest. That felt almost more honest than if they weren’t being watched.

Beck: How so?

Burnham: Who you hope you are, to me, is a more vulnerable and honest truth than who you fear you might be. We live in an age of confessionalism and not a lot of hope. I feel way more comfortable admitting my fears than my hopes. So, to me, it was a very honest, brave thing these kids are doing. But it’s sort of characterized as lying—all these kids are online and they’re lying about themselves. No, they’re trying to speak themselves into existence, which is actually a very beautiful thing.

Beck: Kayla is doing what a lot of kids are doing at that age, which is intensely and deliberately isolating themselves from their parents. She’s trying to hide everything she’s doing online from her dad. But at that age kids still really need their parents in a lot of ways, even though they’re trying to hide from them. And you do see how much Kayla still needs her dad even though she’s been pushing him away. How did you think about trying to show that push and pull?

Burnham: You want independence, and you also want affirmation. You want “Leave me alone,” and also “Drive me to the mall.” Sitting in the front seat being driven by your parent is just such a strong metaphor for the lack of autonomy you have at that age. You’re seat belted into it. You’ve moved from the car seat in the back to the front seat but you have no more freedom. A lot of the struggle at that age is: Who doesn’t want the love of their parent? And at that age you also think you want to be strong enough to not need that love.

Beck: There’s one point in the movie where Kayla is hanging out with some high schoolers who have their minds blown by the fact that she had Snapchat in fifth grade. One of them, a guy, says something along the lines of: There are wildly different microgenerations even among people who are currently teens, because the technology is changing so fast and today’s eighth grader is exposed to different stuff than an eighth grader from three years ago even. And then another one of the high schoolers says something like, “Oh that isn’t true, don’t make her feel like an alien. All that changing technology doesn’t change people that much.” My question is: Which of them do you agree with?

Burnham: Both, I think. I mean, the guy that’s saying all that stuff is also just being a dickhead who thinks he’s philosophizing but is actually hurting people’s feelings. But also: “She’s wired different,” “She’s not wired different”—I think both are true. There’s a timelessness about being that age that doesn’t change. And there also is something very timely that is changing.

Beck: School and the internet are these twin social arenas—they’re related and they interconnect, but they’re not the same. And it seemed like, from my perspective at least, Kayla was originally a very different person in each of those social arenas, and over the course of the movie those selves are scooting closer together. How did you think about these two different social arenas?

Burnham: I think there’s a lot of social arenas. There’s the social arena in the world at school. I think there’s multiple arenas online. There’s a social arena in your head; there’s a social arena in your house. There’s a social arena when you’re in public around strangers; there’s a social arena when you’re in public with your friends. Who are you and do you change just because you’re different in different circumstances? Is that a lie? Is that a problem? I don’t really know what the answer is. But I think that’s the problem people struggle with now: We just feel atomized. How do you then try to cobble together a sense of yourself in the middle of that?

Beck: Kayla gets this time capsule from herself in sixth grade, with a very poignant message that she left for her future self. It occurred to me that this is one way you could think about growing up on the internet—that you’re just constantly making time capsules for your future self, and you can track your life and your growth in that way. Maybe that is a gentler way of thinking about it than the “The internet is forever so you better watch out!” scare tactic sort of way that we often think about it. Though that is also true.

Burnham: That was the intention, to talk about time and permanence and whatever. What does it mean to be present to your future self always? What does it mean to have access to the way you were thinking? Is it necessarily bad? Can you communicate with yourself in a way? The relationship of social media across time, we don’t really think of emotionally. We only think of it as like the way you said, that sort of scare tactic: “Oh no, you’re going to get fired for something you said!” There’s another emotional, weird self-communication thing happening.

Beck: What is your emotional relationship to your own social-media history?

Burnham: It does communicate to you. It lets you know: This is what I loved; this is what I thought was funny; this is what I thought was interesting; this is what my values were. You’re going to be able to consult more than your memories for who you were. And that’s a complicated thing. I’ve had to wrestle with myself in the past for a long time—I’m just all out there. I’m happy to be an out-loud example of a life lived and a life changed. Living from 16 to 27 online, you can literally go month by month and see my morality form or my value system form. And that’s important, to see how we actually do change. That’s what it is documenting—it’s documenting change. We should be aware that what we’re seeing is not necessarily us—it’s the story of us, over time.