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Elsie Fisher is doing her first media junket: Sitting up straight at the table in a Washington, D.C., hotel dining room, uneaten tray of fruit and croissants behind her, reporter in front of her. She is smiling, eager to chat and engaged; the polar opposite of Kayla, the withdrawn teenager she plays in Bo Burnham’s new comedy-drama
But just like her character, Fisher keeps her iPhone within very close reach, and keeps it in a glitter silicone case.
She is 15 after all.
The summer before Fisher began her freshman year of high school in Riverside, Calif., she filmed a movie portraying her character, Kayla’s, final week of eighth grade. Kayla has severe anxiety and is being raised by a concerned single father (Josh Hamilton). She responds to his well-meaning, how-was-your-day questions by mumbling and scrolling through Instagram. All he can do is make dinner, give her a hug and threaten to limit her screen time. Late at night, Kayla gives her blond hair an extra brushing, applies more concealer than she wears to school and records self-help videos for her YouTube channel. “Hi guys! It’s Kayla!” she says, with enthusiasm she can never muster in real life. Then she waxes eloquent about how she’s boosting her self-confidence, or shares her tips for making friends.
The problem is, outside the puffy pastel confines of her bedroom, Kayla does not have friends. In fact, she can barely make eye contact with anything other than her laptop’s camera. Fisher, who makes her leading role debut in “Eighth Grade,” was joined at the press junket table by Emily Robinson. The 19-year-old co-star appears midway through “Eighth Grade” as Olivia, the cool older student Kayla meets on “high school shadow day.” A rising sophomore at Columbia University, Robinson has written her own short, appeared in a several films and been a recurring character on “Transparent.”
The young actors talked with The Lily about mental health for teenagers, the #MeToo movement and whether eighth-graders should be allowed to fly to Washington on field trips.
The Lily: You both went to public schools, right? Sorry for stalking you, Elsie, but I think I saw something on your Instagram feed that looked like a school talent show?
Fisher: I do go to public school. That was my actual school talent show. We had a couple of kids reenacting “Star Wars,” and it was beautiful. They brought faux lightsabers. It was the best thing I’ve ever seen. It was amazing.
The Lily: One thing that’s so buzzy about this film is that you two are not 20-somethings playing teenagers. What experiences are you drawing from, and what do you think the movie gets right?
Fisher: Emotionally, the movie feels right to me. I haven’t been through everything Kayla has, but it feels real and close to home. The general imperfectness and awkwardness and just the “blurgh” of middle school — it’s so good. The school scenes are my favorite. The kids are so wild and true to life, like the opening sex-ed class where the kid is sniffing the marker. That is so true.
Robinson: You were talking about how you came to D.C. with your eighth grade class, and how kids were getting lost.
Fisher: We found them eventually. I can’t believe that is legal, to take a class of eighth-graders to another state. And I go to school in California. We flew across the country with volunteer parent chaperones. That is insane to me. And the chaperones were all like, “Just as long as you don’t die, whatever!”
The Lily: How did you rehearse to sound like you were so nervous, like Kayla is in most of the school scenes, at the pool party and when she goes to the mall with the high school kids?
Fisher: The trick is, we didn’t rehearse. The only time I did was with Josh [Hamilton], who plays my dad because that interaction is just so normal; it has to feel like it happens like that all the time. But everything else in the film has to feel new and unexpected, like anything can happen.
Robinson: A lot of the dialogue between the teens we would improvise. Like, [writer/director] Bo [Burnham] would say, “Talk about this, like, talk about feet.”
Fisher: That’s how we got the whole weird bit about a guy texting a girl a cropped photo of his feet.
The Lily: That discussion seems like it’s set up to contrast with what happens in the car later, when Riley, one of the high school boys, pulls over while driving Kayla home from the mall and asks her to play “Truth or Dare.” That’s a difficult scene. You filmed “Eighth Grade” before the #MeToo movement gained steam. What should viewers be thinking about that scene, and how Kayla handles Riley’s dares?
Fisher: Things don’t have to be big and bad to be traumatic. Nothing really bad happens to Kayla, but it’s still something she could be thinking about for the rest of her life. What I take away from the scene is that regardless of whether you are a shy or quiet kid, say what you need to.
Robinson: The fact that Kayla says no, but then says “I’m sorry,” to him is so beautiful, and so devastating. It’s like a gut punch.
The Lily: Kayla deserves credit for saying no, but it’s still awful.
Robinson: It is awful. What’s important about this depiction is that he’s a nice guy. That’s so much more real and everyday. He’s really manipulative, and he takes advantage of the age difference and the power dynamic between them.
Fisher: We were talking about this last night at dinner, about how something like this can happen. More often, it’s not people being pigs, it’s people using your weaknesses against you. People can have conversations about that.
The Lily: If a parent and daughter go see the film, is there room to have a conversation and acknowledge that Kayla needs more help than she’s getting for her anxiety, and for the situations she ends up in?
Fisher: That’s definitely a conversation that can be had, but I don’t know that the movie takes a stance on that. It’s not saying Kayla’s perfect as she is, or that she absolutely needs help.
Robinson: I think what’s beautiful about Kayla is that everyone can find bits and pieces of her to relate to. The reality is, as much as therapy is super helpful — please get there if you need to — not everyone is necessarily in the position where they can go, or go regularly.
The Lily: At some points, I really had trouble watching this film. I just wanted to give Kayla a hug and make sure she has a therapist; some outside mental help for her anxiety. Does she have a therapist?
Fisher: Who knows? I think she would definitely benefit from a therapist, but I don’t know if she has one. All we know about Kayla is this one [final] week of eighth grade. But I kind of see her videos as a sort of therapy, for herself. Because when she goes and does the videos, she is being who she wants to be, and that could be therapy.
Robinson: Everyone could benefit from therapy. She’s a smart girl. She knows what she needs to learn, and she’s trying to teach herself, through the videos.
The Lily: Your director, Bo Burnham, gained famed as a comedy YouTuber. Are there really girls out there who make advice videos like this?
Fisher: Yes. It’s a lot easier to give advice than to receive it.
Illustrations by Ery Burns for The Lily