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Bo Burnham, director of ‘Eighth Grade,’ goes outside his own experience to make movie

August 23, 2018

Comic-turned filmmaker Bo Burnham has winced watching men tell women’s stories on the big screen.

“Ew, this is gross,” says Mr. Burnham, 27. “This is about some weird dude who has a pervy fascination with that subject rather than a collaboration with his subject.”

So the first-time director understands the progressive position that artists should stay in their lane and tell stories from their cultural perspective.

“I get it, in theory,” he says.

His directorial debut, “Eighth Grade,” shatters that theory all the same.

Thirteen-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is navigating social media, mean girls and other teen dramas. At first blush, Mr. Burnham has little in common with his main character, an unpopular girl dealing with body issues.

In today’s “woke” culture, that chasm can be problematic at best for an artist to convey. In recent years, film studios have sought female directors for select projects, like “Wonder Woman,” in order to address gender disparity behind the camera and tell stories in an authentic fashion.

Mr. Burnham’s approach, and skill, made it a non-issue with “Eighth Grade.”

His movie earned an impressive 98 percent “fresh” rating at review aggregator site RottenTomatoes.com. Critics hailed the film’s sensitive portrayal of teen angst in the 21st century.

The New Yorker’s Naomi Fry says Mr. Burnham’s film “offers acute observations on how social media and the language of self-care have warped teen life.”

To reach beyond his world view, Mr. Burnham visited teen advice videos that hadn’t gone viral. Just the opposite, to be more accurate.

“They’re talking to an audience of two,” he says. “That’s the majority of people on the Internet ... they’re more raw than the ones that are popular and are branding themselves.”

“There’s an honesty and transparency to the way they’re failing to meet their own standards,” he adds, including how they try to imitate the popular bloggers.

He should know, since YouTube helped break him into the mainstream at the tender age of 16. Comedy specials followed, along with his own television show, MTV’s “Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous.”

Teen research only took him so far, though, for “Eighth Grade.”

“The script shouldn’t be overcooked. I get it enough, and now it’s time to collaborate with the kids,” says Mr. Burnham, who name checks “The Goonies” and “The Sandlot” as movies that nailed that youthful spirit. “There’s 10 to 20 percent of this [material] I don’t understand. I’ll have the kids step in and offer that final percent.”

Case in point: Ms. Fisher gently telling her director that no one her age uses Facebook these days.

Mr. Burnham doesn’t regret stepping outside his cultural comfort zone to bring “Eighth Grade” to the masses.

“People like me, white men, have been able to tell everyone’s story. There’s an impulse to go, ’Let’s diversify not just the stories being told but the people telling those stories,” he says.

That doesn’t convey why we create in the first place, he says.

“The beauty of art is to be able to see each other beyond demographics, for audiences to understand that stories should always be human stories,” he says. “As much as we want for men to have respect for women men should see themselves as women, as people on a common journey on the hellish landscape of life.”

That complicated sentiment isn’t always reflected in today’s creative landscape. Adam Bellow, a veteran literary agent and CEO of the right-leaning Liberty Island magazine, recalls a critically hailed movie that could face objections today for cultural reasons.

The 1994 movie “Fresh” followed a black child caught up in the crack epidemic. The first-time director, Boaz Yakin, was a young Jewish filmmaker drawing on his own time in the inner city.

“It’s all related to identity politics ... identity as the defining characteristic of a person, in their social experience, in their outlook,” Mr. Bellow says.

He sees similar currents in the literary world. The emergence of “sensitivity readers” looking for objectionable angles such as a white writer depicting other cultures.

“The whole idea of art is to project yourself empathically into the experience of another person, to affirm the universality of the human existence,” he says. “It’s the ability of people to identify with the other, the stranger, the outsider.”

It’s what Chinese-American filmmaker Chloe Zhao did earlier this year with “The Rider,” the story of a Native-American bronco rider recovering from a serious head injury.

Mr. Burnham defends his approach to “Eighth Grade” by describing the filmmaking process as a team effort, what he sees as a different process than an author setting down to write the great American novel.

″‘Well, who are you as a male filmmaker tell a young girl’s story?’ I am not the only one telling it ... It’s a film. It’s not a book. It’s not a novel,” Mr. Burnham says. “Know what you know and know what you don’t ... I was an anxious person making a movie about an anxious person.”

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