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'Eighth Grade' goes inside the mind of an iPhone-addled teen girl

"The idea was to take emotional inventory of what was going on, rather than doing a TED talk."
Image: Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day in the movie \"Eighth Grade\"
Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day in the movie "Eighth Grade."A24

All the technology in our lives creates a big challenge for filmmakers. How do you create a captivating story out of people staring at phones and typing at laptops?

Bo Burnham, the 27-year-old comedian, singer-songwriter and former YouTube star, was determined to avoid the usual gimmicks and pitfalls in his debut feature film, “Eighth Grade,” a dramedy about a week in the life of an awkward teenage girl.

“I didn’t want those scenes you see in movies where someone’s texting and the message bubble pops up on the screen,” Burnham said in a phone interview this week, referring to a technique used on shows like Netflix’s “House of Cards.”

“Or those scenes where someone’s at a computer and hacker music comes on, and it’s like bam chicka chicka bam,” Burnham said, mimicking the sound of a faux-edgy synthesizer riff.

“Eighth Grade,” which opened in select cities on Friday, centers on 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who escapes into the funhouse mirrors of Instagram, Snapchat and her YouTube advice channel (“The topic of today’s video is being yourself!”).

The film, set in nondescript present-day suburbia, takes a naturalistic approach to scenes of Kayla immersed in her iPhone, glassy-eyed and blank-faced.

“I was trying to think of how we can portray this stuff in a way that’s actually very, very practical,” reflective of a world where, for Burnham, “my phone just exists in my life, it’s integrated, and I’m not commenting on it all the time.”

And yet “Eighth Grade” is not without stylistic flourishes.

In one scene, set in a pitch-black bedroom, Kayla falls down a trance-like social media rabbit hole, furiously scrolling through BuzzFeed quizzes and Snapchat posts as Enya’s mystical “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” blares on the soundtrack.

Burnham creates a subtle but haunting visual trick for that scene: Fisher’s face seems to be superimposed on a shot of a glowing iPhone, an image reminiscent of a double-exposed photograph. (Burnham came up with it while experimenting at home with a Canon lens.)

Image: Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day in a scene from "Eighth Grade"
Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher on the set of "Eighth Grade."A24

“It portrays the way, for Kayla, social media is almost religious,” said Fisher, who in real life is 15. “And the contrast, too: Nothing is happening on Kayla’s face, but everything is happening on her iPhone. It’s an insane contrast.”

Josh Hamilton, the veteran indie film actor who plays Kayla’s devoted father, said the scene made him feel “a little sad.”

“It’s watching her being drawn into this cyberworld that you know can’t be making her feel good,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “And yet, at the same time, maybe it’s offering her connection she can’t get other places in her life.”

The social scourge

The movie arrives amid growing concern that so-called screenagers have become too addled, too distracted, irretrievably plunged into a parallel digital reality.

A recent Pew survey, for example, found that some 45 percent of teens say they use the internet “almost constantly” — a figure that has nearly doubled from the 24 percent who said that in a 2014-15 survey.

And nearly a quarter of teen respondents to the Pew survey (24 percent) described the effect of social media on their lives as mostly negative. (The largest share, 45 percent, said the effect was neither positive nor negative.)

Fisher, whose other film credits include voicing one of the protagonist’s daughters in the “Despicable Me” franchise, said the psychological toll of social media on teens can feel “overstimulating and numbing,” creating the sense of a “midlife crisis when you’re 12.”

And yet “Eighth Grade,” Burnham insists, was not intended as a sweeping social statement about tech addiction or a political screed about Silicon Valley. It is not, in other words, a preachy or moralistic "kids today!" lament.

Image: Bo Burnham
Bo Burnham at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 20.Taylor Jewell / Invision/AP file

“The hope wasn’t to imbue these things with judgment, but just to say that social media is a very powerful thing. It’s not a decorative social trend, it’s not Tamagotchi,” Burnham said, referring to the handheld digital pets beloved among kids who came of age in the 1990s.

“My hope is not to be instructive or prescriptive about what should be done,” Burnham added. “The idea was to take emotional inventory of what was going on, rather than doing a TED talk.”

And for all the anxiety around tech addiction, Burnham suggested he can still appreciate the aesthetics of a cellphone’s glow.

“We premiered the movie at Sundance, and after the movie ended everyone in the audience immediately went on their phones.” It was a reminder, Burnham said, that “being in the dark with the glow of your phone can be a surreal and beautiful image.”