New from Jon Espino on The Young Folks: Bo Burnham on growing up with YouTube, cringe-worthy childhood memories, and premature adulthood in ‘Eighth Grade’ [Interview]

There are certain films that remind us of our childhoods. Those breezy, carefree days where we would just play the day away and not have to worry about the myriad of things that now plague our adult lives. Well, that may have been at least partially true for much older generations, but for those of us who grew up in the age of social media, our accelerated journey into adulthood is well-documented online.

Bo Burnham makes his narrative film debut with the engrossing film Eighth Grade. In it, he gives us a glimpse of what it is like to grow up with technology that keeps us connected easier, but also isolates us. I talk with Bo Burnham about growing up with YouTube, one of the most embarrassing moments of his childhood, our mutual love of cringe-worthy moments and more.

First off, are you a parent?

Bo Burnham: I’m not a parent. I’m ap-parent-ly not.

I’m only asking because the perspective in the film is so nuanced. What did you do for research?

BB: The nice thing about kids these days is that they post literally everything online all the time, so that makes the research very easy. I don’t have to stake out outside of a middle school, I can just Google it.

It’s probably better that you didn’t do that…

BB: Yeah, exactly, and that’s the beauty of 2018, that there’s way too much research. There’s more information than I needed.

We grew up during the rise of YouTube and it’s a completely different animal from what I remember it. YouTube helped you launch your career, but it seems to have a negative effect on Kayla’s life.

BB: I think there’s a positive and a negative side. The internet for a lot of people has good and bad to it. I didn’t want to take a stance on it either way. I think the internet and YouTube asks much more of kids than it did when I was coming up. When I was coming up it was like, “Have a cool video? Post it!” and now it’s like, “Who are you? What is your entire life? Post it!” It reaches a little deeper into her, so the stakes are higher. You associate your YouTube channel with who you are instead of having it just be about the little, weird fun things you do sometimes.

YouTube had such a strong presence in the film that it felt like its own character. I found the separation between Kayla’s YouTube persona and who she is in real life completely fascinating. It’s something that we know does exist, especially on social media. Do you think we are putting too much emphasis on developing our online personalities instead of working on ourselves and our real-life personalities?

BB: I think there’s always been versions of that even before the internet, especially when you’re young and you want to pretend to be a cooler more outgoing version of yourself. The internet just solidifies it in a way that gives you a means to play out this fantasy version of yourself. I don’t know if that sort of Tony Robbins, positive-thinking, visualizing is the right way to go. I’m not even one to say it isn’t. The movie doesn’t pass judgment and say something like, “She should put down the phone and just be real!” It’s more like a description of what really happens and the traps we fall into, and this is how it makes us feel. It’s up to the audience to then have these kinds of conversations. My instinct would be, yeah, you should probably drink more water and chill out. Maybe like a little less time on your phone and maybe read a book here or there.

I had secondhand anxiety while watching the film because of how much of it felt familiar when I was that age. Did you experience anything like that when developing it?

BB: I like cringe, and I love cringing. I think it’s the highest form of empathy to cringe. A lot of my favorite comedies are cringing. I felt the film like I hoped the audiences would feel it. While filming, if I didn’t feel it, I knew it wasn’t working.

Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24

I loved the character of Gabe. I was probably some combination of Kayla and Gabe when I was that age, so I felt well-represented in the film. Is there a specific character in the film that you created that represents who you were at that age

BB: I didn’t think so. My mom actually dug up some stuff from when I was in 6th and 7th grade. I was reading it and I didn’t realize I was way more Gabe than I thought. I didn’t think Gabe was going to be so autobiographical. I felt like a bit of every character. Of course, I’m Kayla, but Kayla I relate to much more now. I think I’m more similar to Kayla now then when I was in 8th grade.

Do you think it has gotten harder to stay a kid now with all of these emerging technologies?

BB: I think that’s the right way to put it. Totally. Harder to stay a kid is exactly right. That was almost the point of the movie, things are making you come of age too soon. The resolution of the movie is almost about not coming of age. Chill out and have some chicken McNuggets and be a kid. Don’t worry, adulthood is coming. You don’t have to worry about growing up because you will grow up.

The film is full of growing pains moments that, like you said, are cringe-worthy or embarrassing. Do you have any that stick out in your mind from when you were growing up?

BB: Oh, I definitely do. I’ve never told this one, but in 5th grade, I was on a whale watching trip and someone pantsed me in front of all these girls and whales. That one sticks out. You just try to forget them, but they still stick around, like all the bad pool parties you went to.

So the pool party scene in the film resonated with you?

BB: For sure. I was a little boy that didn’t hit puberty yet and I didn’t have hair under my arms, and I was so self-conscious under my arms. Then there were the boys who did have hair under their arms who were probably all horribly self-conscious about that. I don’t think anyone in the 8th grade is REALLY comfortable in a pool party. It feels ridiculous that we actually set them up.

Can you tell me about your upcoming project Gay Kid and Fat Chick because based on the title alone it sounds like my high school experience where I play both roles.  

BB: That’s hilarious! Yeah, it’s a script I wrote a while ago, like when I was 21. It was stuck forever, but then it just came back and it felt like it wasn’t my story to direct. We found this incredible and prolific TV director, Amy York Rubin, to work on it. I’m just going to be a writer and producer on it, but she’s going to direct it. It’s a different story than this. I’ve already done my version of school with Eighth Grade and now I want to see what someone else does, especially since this one takes place in high school.   

from Jon Espino – The Young Folks

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