In adolescence, kids only a couple years older can seem so much more sophisticated that they’re almost from another planet. Hollywood entertainment perhaps unwittingly helps reinforce this psychological divide, often casting performers in their 20s as high school students and older teenagers as middle school students, in order to avoid some of the protective mechanisms of American child labor laws for younger actors.
So it can be something of a shock to see a clearly age-appropriate pre-teen or recent teenager as the star of a film, like in Bo Burnham’s naturalistic, un-idealized Eighth Grade, for which Elsie Fisher secured a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy for her work.
After debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, the low-budget movie, which originally explores the low-grade hum of adolescent anxiety, sociability, and depression, went on to become an art house hit, grossing $13.5 million in North American theaters via distributor A24 Films. Anchoring it is Fisher’s performance as Kayla Day, a socially awkward 13-year-old who lives with her single father Mark (Josh Hamilton) in upstate New York, and enjoys producing short video blogs giving life advice.
“The initial auditions were (Kayla’s) videos, and I really identified at first with her speech mannerisms, because that’s the way I talk, with ‘like’ and ‘and,’ that kind of stuff,” says Fisher, who has been working since she was 10 years old, voicing Agnes in the first two animated Despicable Me movies in addition to a couple TV credits. “But as I slowly developed a better understanding of the character, her anxiety is also something I definitely feel all the time. So that was really nice to be able to portray on screen.”
Fisher also especially liked that Eighth Grade portrayed the double-edged sword of social media – how it can provide important avenues of exploration and self-expression, but also open oneself up to unforgiving social sanction, potential heartbreak or further isolation. “Social media, I think for a lot of people, is a very passive addiction,” she says. “And I think one of the great things about the movie is we really tried not to take a stance on social media. I think it just portrays it very honestly and (in a way) that’s very true to my own experience because Kayla is addicted to it and she spends time at night scrolling through it, it’s very important to her. And that can be shown as bad, but in another sense, she makes her videos on YouTube and those are good for her – she has fun making them, and it’s a way of expressing herself. I definitely can relate to that.”
While the deceptively casual and lived-in nature of Burnham’s script helped create the false impression among some that the role of Kayla was embodied by a nonprofessional simply playing herself, there was at least one element of Fisher that directly influenced her character, in the form of Kayla’s signature sign-off catchphrase for her YouTube videos. “Instead of ending conversations like a normal person, (saying) goodbye, I’ll talk to you later, I would say, ‘Okay, Gucci,’” shares Fisher with a laugh. “So Bo started doing it to embarrass me because that’s how he is. On set, he would be like, ’Is this shot Gucci?’ So we filmed all the videos in the last days (of production) and he wanted Kayla to have a sign-off, so it had to be ‘Gucci!’”
In the end, Fisher is most proud of how she believes Eighth Grade can help bridge the somewhat normal communication gap between middle schoolers and their parents. “I think (the film) really shows how middle schoolers are struggling with the same things you are – they literally are just people without money or independence,” she says. “But hopefully we can also have middle schoolers relating to their parents because Josh’s character is a wonderful portrayal of how it can be a struggle to relate to your kid, when you are just trying so hard and you love them.”