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‘Eighth Grade’ Might Head the Class of First Features

Director Bo Burnham defines the internet for those growing up online

From the stripped-down authenticity of Jonah Hill’s “Mid90s,” to the fed-up outcry of Carlos López Estrada’s “Blindspotting,” to the prestige Oscar-bait trappings of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” 2018’s class of debut filmmaking talent built impressively on the promise of cinema’s future. Directors such as Ari Aster (“Hereditary”), Aneesh Chaganty (“Searching”), Josie Rourke (“Mary Queen of Scots”) and Boots Riley (“Sorry to Bother You”), to name a few, also stepped up with singular offerings, forming a chorus of new voices with something to say.

Following in the wake of newcomer talents like Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) and Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) in recent years, critical appreciation seems to have rallied around one name in particular: “Eighth Grade” writer-director Bo Burnham, who received a Directors Guild nomination for best first-time feature this week along with Cooper, Estrada, Riley and “A Private War” helmer Matthew Heineman. In fact, passionate support for Burnham’s film, along with its status as one of the year’s most acclaimed movies, make it a longshot underdog threat to score a best picture nomination.

The 28-year-old Burnham got his start in theater before transitioning to stand-up comedy and, eventually, YouTube stardom. Directing features wasn’t really a goal, but the trajectory naturally carried him there. “I tried to drag everything I loved about theater into stand-up,” he says. “In recording and taping my specials, I fell in love with the idea of a small, different version of filmmaking. I think without knowing it I was heading toward directing.”

Well-attuned to the online space, Burnham put a touch of himself into “Eighth Grade,” which tells the story of a self-conscious young girl named Kayla who reaches out to whomever may be watching via online self-help videos. That said, Burnham was also eager to make something far removed from his own persona. “I had exhausted myself as a subject in my stand-up,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in telling a story about who I am or who I was.”

The script immediately caught the attention of Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men”), who has traded for years in amplifying distinctive new voices, from Wes Anderson to Noah Baumbach to Greta Gerwig. Rudin saw in Burnham’s work a fully realized point of view.

“Bo has a corner of the culture that he owns, and no one is really playing in it,” Rudin says. “This was so written from the inside and authentic. I think Bo has more insight into the internet than anyone I’ve known, and I spent three years on ‘The Social Network.'”

“Bo has a corner of the culture that he owns, and no one is really playing in it.”
Producer Scott Rudin

Indeed, for Rudin, “Eighth Grade” always felt like a companion piece of sorts to David Fincher’s 2010 study of Mark Zuckerberg and the rise of Facebook. Burnham’s work was about the “triumphalism” of social media, “and I don’t mean triumphalism in a good way,” the producer says.

While writing his script, Burnham studied countless YouTube accounts from youngsters putting themselves out into the world, a whole generation of people growing up online. The problem with the internet, though, is the disconnect between how things are expressed in the virtual space versus the real world. He worries about that for children today.

“Sometimes you’re not given the chance to fail out loud and grow,” Burnham says of the unforgiving web. “It’s hard enough being 20 years old, 30 years old, trying to think [in public], let alone being a kid.”

Those notions make “Eighth Grade” a far more socially relevant entry in the 2018 canon than it perhaps has been deemed. The zeitgeist is always a major part of the awards season puzzle. A small sampling of movies this year dabble in it, whether Spike Lee’s alt-right smackdown “BlacKkKlansman” or Adam McKay’s how-we-got-here Dick Cheney dissection “Vice.” But nothing quite wrangles with it in the micro like Burnham’s work does. That gives it a special sort of edge.

“No one has described this experience in a film,” Rudin says. “It’s a great metaphor for the way everyone feels — issues of anxiety: It’s anthropology, really.”

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