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‘Eighth Grade’ captures our need to connect

Following a week in the life of a middle schooler, the new film "Eighth Grade" sets the familiar fumblings of adolescence against the constant glare of a glowing screen or Snapchat filter. Jeffrey Brown takes a look at why it’s drawing strong critical praise for its raw portrayal of the challenges of being a teenager in the digital age.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally: living through that awkward age in the modern era.

    Jeffrey Brown looks at a new film about a week in the life of a middle-schooler that is drawing strong critical praise for its performances, and for its raw portrayal of the challenges of being a teenager in the digital age.

    It’s called “Eighth Grade.”

  • Elsie Fisher:

    Hey, guys. Kayla back here with another video

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     Thirteen-year-old Kayla Day, ready with awkward advice to her online video audience of zero.

  • Elsie Fisher:

     There can be anywhere that you wouldn’t usually go, maybe because it’s, like, weird or scary.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     But not ready to follow that advice in real life.

    Actress Elsie Fisher, now 15, knows what that’s like.

  • Elsie Fisher:

     Kayla’s story was very close to home for me, yes, because, I mean, I just remember being the quiet, weird kid at school.

    I think it’s not only capturing the eighth grade experience. It kind of is capturing the human experience, if that makes sense, because I think everyone is feeling anxious and weird all the time, regardless of whether they’re still in eighth grade.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     The film “Eighth Grade” sets the familiar fumblings of adolescence in a contemporary world magnified by the constant glare of a glowing screen or the latest Snapchat filter.

  • Actor:

     When did you get Snapchat? What grade?

  • Elsie Fisher:

     Fifth grade.

  • Actress:

    Fifth grade?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     It’s the debut film of 27-year-old Bo Burnham.

  • Bo Burnham:

     I had felt like the world of the Internet and social media hadn’t really been talked about.

    Sort of the depictions of the Internet that I see in media tend to be a little bit finger-wagging from a sense of authority. And I kind of wanted to just talk about what it meant to live with it just subjectively, how it sort of registers to us emotionally. And when you’re an eighth grader, everything is emotional, everything is subjective.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     Burnham was best known previously as a stand-up comedian.

  • Bo Burnham (singing):

     What’s a pirate minus the ship?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     But he first gained Internet fame for his own teenaged home videos.

    I asked Burnham what he sees now in those videos of his younger self.

  • Bo Burnham:

     I see a person desperate for attention and love. And it’s a little bit embarrassing, but it’s out there forever, which I think is an experience that a lot of young people have and will have, this sort of like permanent record of your most embarrassing times.

    I wanted to do in the movie is sort of process that and say, where does this need to connect come from?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     Details are crucial here. Burnham shot the film in a real middle school, with actual teachers and students as extras.

    The frustrations of parents trying to reach their screen-absorbed children will also feel all too real to many, in this case, Kayla and her loving but flummoxed father.

  • Josh Hamilton:

    Look, when I was your age, I wasn’t cool like you. You have all these interests and your videos and just how you express yourself in them is so — it’s just so cool. It is so great. And I just — I just think maybe you just need to put yourself out there a little bit.

  • Bo Burnham:

     I’m right between them in age, and I feel like both of them. I feel like a scared, nervous kid on the Internet, and I also feel like an out-of-touch dude who has no one to turn to and is just trying his best to make this girl feel good.

  • Josh Hamilton:

     Hey, how was the shadow thing?

  • Elsie Fisher:

     No, you were being quiet, which is fine. Just like don’t be weird and quiet, because, like, I look over at you and I think you are about to drive us into a tree or something, and then I get really freaked out, and then I can’t text my friends. So, just…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     No spoilers here. Suffice it to say that Kayla graduates middle school, only to realize she still must negotiate life offline and what Elsie Fisher calls a kind of digital addiction.

  • Elsie Fisher:

     Attention is kind of currency nowadays. People want to feel seen, and they want to know that they have people who actively are caring about them. And they think social media fulfills that a little bit, because you can see all the comments and likes and retweets, and your tagged pictures.

    But it’s just a very overstimulating thing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     It’s something the film, says director Burnham, seeks to capture, without passing judgment.

  • Bo Burnham:

    If the Internet was just bad, it would be so much easier to address. You know, throw your phone into the ocean.

    I think it’s both. You know, the Internet, it makes — it connects us and it isolates us. It stimulates us and it numbs us. We can objectify ourselves or we can express ourselves.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    “Eighth Grade” opens in theaters nationwide beginning today.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Makes you want to watch it.

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