In a violet, gleaming corner of the Disney Store at Tysons Corner Center, beside a castle-shaped fitting room, Bo Burnham bristles at a box for an Avengers pool float.
On the box, a bikini-clad, tween-age girl lies on her stomach on an inflatable Captain America shield. She is wearing sunglasses. Her skin is tanned, so shiny it’s reflective. She has braces. Her smile looks compulsory.
“That’s .?.?. weird,” Burnham hedges.
Burnham doubles back to inspect it. His eye for detail has served him well: An early YouTube phenom (God, he hates when you call him that), Burnham went from singing raunchy, pun-laden songs in his childhood bedroom to performing inventive, introspective stand-up comedy in front of thousands. He left the stage for the camera, directing specials for fellow comedians Jerrod Carmichael and Chris Rock. Now, at 27, he’s promoting his first feature film, “Eighth Grade,” which he wrote and directed, about a middle-school girl navigating the minefield of modern adolescence: hormones and shattered iPhones, Snapchat and self-loathing.
“You can’t even see the float.” He is unsettled by how the ad portrays the girl like a pinup. “Just show the float. We get kids will be on it.”
He jackknifes his 6-foot-5 frame as he leans down and squints, lasering in on a tiny swatch of color.
“You can see the cameraman, too. His feet are reflected in her glasses.”
This is how Burnham operates. He is relentlessly observant and interrogative, always searching for seams. He wants to understand how we make what we make, and what we’re doing to each other. He’s intolerant of anything he considers exploitative. He’s nearly as ruthless with the outside world as he is with himself.
Burnham wrote “Eighth Grade” to escape the isolation he felt onstage, to grapple with his anxiety and the Internet culture that birthed his career. But rave reviews from the Sundance Film Festival homed in on the rarity of what he’s made: a revealing, heartfelt dispatch from the inscrutable universe of “kids today.”
The art he made for himself happens to explain a generation he’s not even part of, but Burnham is comfortable with contradiction. He’s dying for an audience, but please, leave him alone. He’s at war with pop culture, but he is pop culture. He’s sure there’s no such thing as truth, but all he wants is to tell it.
Kayla, the film’s vulnerable protagonist, makes motivational videos nobody watches. She gives advice about confidence and being yourself, in a stammering speech littered with “like” and “um” and “you know.” Played by 15-year-old Elsie Fisher, Kayla constantly scrolls through Instagram and Facebook as she struggles to participate in a world that feels hostile even in its most banal corners. A car ride home from the mall warps into a traumatic game of truth or dare. A hapless attempt to interact with a crush unfolds in the midst of a school shooting drill.
“Eighth Grade” extends empathy to the point of agony. Burnham grants an epic quality to the ordinary that honors the experience of being a teenager, when Instagram likes and glances exchanged across classrooms feel like life and death. He sidesteps tired complaints about younger generations and instead tries to explain: why they’re tethered to their phones, why they’re hurting, why they’re lost.
The kernel of an idea came a few years ago, in a mall like this one. He was watching a young girl, sitting alone on the edge of a fountain taking selfies.
“Here was a girl that 95 percent of the time was in her head, worried about how she looked,” Burnham explains, pantomiming the girl staring solemnly at her phone. “And then in her falsest moment, as if being held hostage, she went up and immortalized herself.” He contorts his giant mouth into a grin and throws up a peace sign.
The chasm between the lonely, self-conscious girl and the censored, confident image she was putting into the world fascinated Burnham. She was performing, he realized, and it was painful to watch. Burnham understood: Performing consumes him.
As a teenager in Hamilton, Mass., despite being twitchy and shy, Burnham was enthralled by the abstract and dramatic. He was an asker of enormous questions. He loved theater and magic shows, especially work that skewed meta. He admired the magicians Penn & Teller for how they could expose and explain their craft to the audience, then whirl around and still awe them with it.
But his early videos are void of his higher-minded sensibilities. Burnham got famous in early 2007, with a viral YouTube song called “My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay.” He was a 15-year-old with a 15-year-old’s sense of humor. “How do you trace a scatter plot? Give the pencil to Michael J. Fox,” he sang in one song, with the sinful delight of a well-behaved kid mouthing a curse word for the first time. There was a cringeworthy song about Helen Keller being the perfect woman, because she couldn’t see or hear. (Yes, he is ashamed of it now.)
“The stuff I thought was funny when I was 16 is up there forever, and part of this movie is like me going back to a time before then and forgiving myself,” he admits as he glides down an escalator. “We’re gonna live in a world someday where every presidential candidate is going to have, like, the offensive jokes they told when they were 12 archived.”
He thinks that maybe once everyone is haunted, as he is, by the public versions of their younger, half-baked selves, we’ll have to grant some blanket pardon. We’ll forgive him. We’ll forgive everybody.
After he made the jump to stand-up comedy, his frenetic shows echoed the magic he had worshiped. He used voice-overs, threw glitter, read poetry. He slammed pop juggernauts like One Direction for “cashing in on puberty and low self-esteem” of their fans and railed against organized religion with a song from the perspective of an enraged and disappointed god.
But at the forefront, always, was his embattled relationship with the audience, with performance itself. He broke the fourth wall so often it crumbled. He would go to great pains to make his shows feel organic and spontaneous, then pull the rug out from under it all, reminding the audience that he had planned everything, down to the second. He spurned those who shouted they loved him: “You love the idea of me.”
At the end of his last special, “Make Happy,” Burnham delivers an auto-tuned, Kanye West-style rant. He laments the width of Pringle cans and structural inadequacies in Chipotle burritos. But then he begins to confess.
“The truth is my biggest problem’s you,” Burnham croons, kneeling at the edge of the stage, bathed in the ghostly glow of a single floodlight. He fiddles with auto-tune, distorting his voice beyond recognition.
“Part of me loves you and part of me hates you. And part of me needs you, and part of me fears you.”
He shuts his eyes and the background music crescendos.
“Look at them, they’re just staring at me.” The camera cuts to the audience, showing them as Burnham sees them, a black and faceless mass.
During the tour for “Make Happy,” Burnham’s anxiety was strangling him. It had always been there, manifesting in stomach problems that left him hospitalized in high school, again later in stage fright. His “Eighth Grade” protagonist compares it to having butterflies before a roller-coaster ride, never quelled by the thrill of the drop. But now he was having panic attacks onstage. They would last as long as 20 minutes and made him feel like he was floating outside himself. The audience could never tell.
“It’s an incredibly surreal place to have one, within the confines of something you made in front of 3,000 people, that have no idea, that paid to come see you,” Burnham says, laughing nervously. “It’s funny in hindsight.”
Surely, he thought, his anxiety was all wrapped up in being on that stage, pinned between his need to be seen and the sickening feeling of having overextended himself, of having shared too much. But after his shows, when nervous, reverent teens would come talk to him, he came to understand they were also desperate to have something to say and someone to hear it, to be constantly validated by an audience, like that girl taking selfies on the fountain.
“I realized that the sort of depth of my experience was not unique to me,” Burnham says, knotting his long limbs in a too-small food court chair. “That’s why I wanted to make a movie about someone that’s performing and seeking an audience and wanting all those things but isn’t a 27-year-old male comedian.” (He is so tired of himself.)
He wanted to make something earnest and straightforward, absent the veil of performance. He studied hours of vlogs from average, unfamous kids like Kayla, had seminars with teenagers and deferred to his young actors. “It was very collaborative,” says Fisher, the lead actress. “He wanted us to be in on the process and he always trusted what we said.”
Despite the film’s authenticity, Burnham wants to make clear: He’s not the authority. “I’m not going, ‘I’ve been there and I’ve figured it out. It’s, ‘I’m in it and this is what I’m struggling with. Maybe you’re struggling with it, too.’?”
As Burnham speaks, a small train loops around the hinterlands of the food court. In the caboose, a little boy bounces around like a pinball. He pumps his fist like he’s tooting the train’s horn, while an older girl, probably his sister, sits beside him, staring blankly at her phone.
‘There it is!” Burnham sits up and points.
“I want to tell her to look up and enjoy it,” he says, watching the girl as the train disappears around a corner. “But also .?.?.”
He doesn’t finish, lost in contradiction.