PARK CITY, Utah—On Thursday, 14-year-old high-school freshman Elsie Fisher was capping off a week and a half of marathon studying and finishing her last final. She had to take all her tests a little early because she would be skipping school Friday. She had somewhere to be. The teacher’s note, though, was an unusual one: Eighth Grade, the film she stars in almost every single frame of, was premiering that afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival.
Days later, when we sit down—along with Eighth Grade writer-director Bo Burnham—at a chalet-styled lounge off Main Street, the film is generating enough word-of-mouth heat to melt the foot of snow blanketing Park City. And at the tip of everyone’s tongue is the revelatory performance by its breakout teenage star.
She blushes a bit, shrinking in the bashful way kids do when they get compliments, when I suggest that, ever since the rapturously received premiere, all of Park City must want to just hug her. “It’s been crazy,” she says, simultaneously giggling and talking at the same time, that reflexive thing we all do when we’re young yet somehow lose the ability to when we get older. “I just saw Terry Crews! Like, what!? That was weird…”
Eighth Grade, in broad strokes, is a coming-of-age story set in the age of Snapchat. Gossiping goes down in Instagram DMs instead of behind school lockers. Idle time is spent staring at screens instead of loitering in strip-mall parking lots. But the angst of trying to figure out just who you are and how you might fit in—in school, at home, and in an increasingly stressful world—is the same timeless torture.
Fisher plays Kayla, who is just trying to make it through eighth grade alive. If she’s being ambitious, then maybe with a little dignity—and, if we’re shooting for the stars, some friends?—too.
At school, she was voted Quietest in the end-of-year eighth grade superlatives, a crushing blow to a 13-year-old who thinks her social capital might come from hosting a series of bubbly, earnest, affirmational YouTube videos. Example topics: How to Be Yourself, How to Put Yourself Out There, or How to Be Confident. Who, if anyone, watches these videos is unknown, but it couldn’t be more clear that, subconsciously, Kayla isn’t so much coaching whoever is on the other side of that camera as much as she is herself.
Kayla isn’t bullied, per se, but she is lonely. She has the same interests as everyone else. She talks in the same stuttering machine-gun speech of “likes” and “ums,” with that teenage enthusiasm that the tongue sometimes struggles to catch up to. But she’s not as thin, her skin not as clear, her confidence not as effortless.
She’s not some sad sack, or the sweetest girl in the world. Like any girl her age, she’s moody and kind of snotty to her doting dad (Josh Hamilton). She’s so real, and Fisher’s portrayal so authentic and unmannered, that your heart bleeds for her, your feet soaked in a pool of red by the film’s gut-wrenching finale. Middle school is a hormonal whirlpool of Big Feelings, and, watching Eighth Grade, they all hit you like a tsunami all over again.
The film was responsible for Sundance’s first communal cry. At a festival in which the likes of Keira Knightley, Hilary Swank, Kathryn Hahn, and Maggie Gyllenhaal are delivering stellar leading turns, it’s Fisher’s performance that people can’t stop talking about.
In extreme you-can’t-script-it-better fashion, Fisher, whose biggest previous credit was voicing Agnes, the youngest daughter of Gru, in the Despicable Me movies, graduated eighth grade one week before the film started shooting. One week after production wrapped, she started high school.
The giggle comes back. “It was weird filming the movie, and then, like no one cares,” she says. “Like, even friends, like, close friends I have and told, they were like, ‘That’s cool! OK, back to Twitter.’”
“Tell the best story ever,” Burnham goads her, a devious, excited smile on his face.
At the suggestion of Burnham and the film’s crew, Fisher explains that she joined theater as her first high school elective. “It was fun and cool or whatever,” she says. “Then auditions for the school play came around, and I didn’t get a part.”
“There were like 90 parts, and she didn’t get one!” Burnham reiterates, had you not grasped the lunacy the first time of the actress who is the toast of Sundance not getting cast in her local Thousand Oaks, California, high school play. “Throughout the audition, the teacher was going, like, ‘Louder!’” Burnham continues, taking over the story from Fisher. “She told me this story and I was like, I’m really sorry for you, but this is perfect.”
Burnham isn’t exactly the person you’d expect to craft such an affecting and astute portrait of a young girl’s middle school experience. The 27-year-old, hitherto best known for his stand-up comedy, has no kids of his own. And, like, you know, is a dude…
He had been wanting to write something about the internet and the way it makes people feel, and he wanted to make it about young people because “young people experience the internet purely.” His stresses his anxieties are, at the end of the day, peripheral, “because I have a job and I have taxes to pay,” he says. “But for a kid, it’s everything.”
Over his career as a YouTuber and in preparation for this project, he watched hundreds of videos of kids online: “In general, the boys tended to talk about XBox and the girls tended to talk about their souls.”
The film pulls off a sort of magic trick of empathy. I wasn’t like Kayla in middle school. You probably weren’t either. And, if you were, you certainly weren’t like Kayla in middle school at this time. Yet each successive frame executes an emotional sleight of hand, with intensifying heartbreaks replacing astonished gasps each time a cruelty Kayla weathers, a self-esteem setback she suffers, or a tiny act of social bravery backfires.
This is an awkward-stage pubescent girl for whom Instagram likes and YouTube subscribers are matters of life-and-death importance, all in the desperate pursuit of a satisfying social life. Yet she is so very, well... you.
“I see myself in her personally now,” Burnham says. “And I hope other people do as well. For me, at the premiere I was in the green room on the verge of a panic attack, just like her in the bathroom about to go out to the pool party. Someone walking into a room, putting their hand up, and deciding to go do something… I don’t know, I connect to her as a person being brave and putting herself out there.”
Fisher, with an adorable sigh of relief, reassures me that her eighth grade experience, though still fraught in its own right, was nothing like Kayla’s.
“Eighth grade was a year…” she says, laughing at her own melodrama. “It’s a weird one. That’s a given. Definitely not exactly like Kayla’s. I think Kayla’s experience is a reflective amalgamation of a lot of things.” (Those SAT words!) “My eighth grade wasn’t the same. I’d gotten better dealing with my own personal anxieties in seventh grade-ish, so I was more confident as a person, which is nice.”
The more we talk, the more we try to home in on what it is about Kayla that makes audiences feel so much. And not just feel for her but also reflect on themselves.
“I just think, for me, it’s like, there’s obviously a very sexist narrative to art that the only stories about the human condition have to be about male comedians being sad in New York City,” Burnham says. “You know what I mean?
“I think she’s as valid a conduit for that as anybody,” he continues. “The real violence and fragility of the moment we’re in right now, and just the kind of landscape that we’ve built in the culture and the people who are out there, everyone’s nervous, everyone’s scared. She’s just a pure version of something. Not pure as uncomplicated, but distilled. She feels very intensely.”
As someone who is 14 right now in that very world, how does Fisher handle all of this?
“Right now I’m just trying to survive,” she says, myself and Burnham nodding in us-too agreement. “I’m really just trying to survive right now, and not die in high school. I think that’s what everyone is doing. It’s hard for me to pinpoint. You’re making me get all existentialist!”
By the time this article is published, Fisher will already be back home and at school. She says she’s unsure how she will explain the whirlwind of her Sundance experience to her friends and classmates.
“If I’m being honest. I haven’t even told any of my teachers or anything that this happened,” she says. “Most of the kids at my school know me as Agnes from Despicable Me. They’re like, whatever, old news.”
We have a feeling that’s about to change.