It’s a Thursday morning in late April, and Elsie Fisher is playing hooky.
Well, not exactly. The 15-year-old star of Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” is currently sitting beside the Hamilton-bred writer-director on a dark leather sofa inside Boston’s Liberty Hotel. Though Fisher may be skipping high-school classes back in Thousand Oaks, Calif., let’s just say she’s got one hell of a teacher’s note.
The night before, Fisher and Burnham were in Somerville for the sold-out opening night of this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston, where their painfully astute look at adolescence brought down the house, complete with a lengthy standing ovation for Fisher. It opens Friday.
“It was super fun,” says the actress, who’s been on the festival circuit with “Eighth Grade” since it premiered at Sundance, in January. “Everyone here was really nice,” she adds.
“As you know,” cracks Burnham, “Boston people are known for being incredibly nice, so this just confirmed everything.”
Both enthusiastically proclaim IFFBoston their best screening so far. Why? Burnham — a YouTube icon who graduated to comedy specials like Netflix’s “Make Happy” (2016) before turning to feature filmmaking for this project — has one theory.
“It really, really felt like coming home with a thing, more than even when I would come back with standup shows,” says Burnham of showing his feature debut in Boston. “This one seemed to hit so much harder than it did anywhere else, which I think was sort of right.”
In conceiving then writing “Eighth Grade,” which explores one week in that crucial, excruciating time period through the eyes of 13-year-old Kayla (Fisher), Burnham — now 27 — says it was inevitable for him to draw upon his formative years in a Massachusetts suburb, even while location-scouting in New York.
“I think it’s a Boston movie — well, not really, but in my mind it takes place there,” he explains. “I wanted it to feel like the kind of places where I went to school, a summer movie in a place where it snows, what it feels like to get your bathing suit out when you live in Boston and you haven’t shown a forearm in eight months: UGG boots, black North Faces, blue jeans, all bought at the Northshore Mall.”
That said, the setting of “Eighth Grade” is never specified. “I tried to write it like it took place sort of where I grew up, but somewhere else,” offers Burnham. His vagueness is deliberate.
“The real geography of the movie is, like, mall, pool, car, Internet, home,” explains Burnham. “Do you know what I mean? It’s supposed to be a little more almost archetypal.”
That’s because — though laser-focused on following Kayla through the mortifying malaise of middle school’s final days — “Eighth Grade” is also more broadly about the experience of adolescence, and specifically the ways in which it’s being reshaped by modern technology.
“I think kids are very displaced right now,” says the writer-director, who originally set out to say something about the anxiety of living through a digital epoch. “It doesn’t really matter where you grow up, because your main topographical relationship is the Internet. It’s not about going down to the store and chilling; it’s about going on Buzzfeed.”
“Eighth Grade” wholly reflects this worldview. From her laptop, Kayla records earnest, stuttering vlogs (“The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy,” she explains in one) for her sparsely followed YouTube channel. On her phone, she scrolls dutifully through Instagram, acne-spotted features illuminated by a procession of pics from other kids who’ve employed myriad filters to achieve a form of blurry perfection. And at school, she struggles to get similarly heads-in-the-clouds classmates to look up from their screens, even during a school-shooting drill. Given how much of her life unfolds online, it’s unsurprising that, when Kayla’s dad (Josh Hamilton) tries to talk to her at dinner, she’s frustrated by his well-meaning stab at real conversation.
“I don’t think we’re processing as a culture what technology is doing to this age at all,” says Burnham. “When cameras first showed up, there were people who believed it was taking a part of your soul when you took a picture. And I think they were right.”
Fisher — who started shooting the film a week after graduating middle school and so perhaps understandably refers to it as “a time capsule” — notes that she, like Kayla, struggles to negotiate the pros and cons of being plugged in 24/7.
“I see all these people who are watching themselves live, and then also watching other people react to them living,” she explains. “They’re all self-centered but also almost self-conscious; it's not done in a look-at-me kind of way, more the opposite.”
Central to “Eighth Grade,” both say, is the idea of feeling isolated in the age of unprecedented connectivity.
“Attention’s literally the commodity that we’re using right now,” says Burnham. “It’s like we expanded into the western frontier, and there is no more land to conquer, so we needed to find more real estate, so we’ve found the real estate of people’s time. Attention is so valuable to these corporations and it’s also so valuable to us?”
That’s Kayla’s main struggle, adds Fisher: “She’s just deprived of attention, and connection. She doesn’t have friends, she doesn’t even have bullies, and she doesn’t have a lot of influences in her life, aside from her dad and people on the Internet.”
As much as “Eighth Grade” has to say about Internet culture, however, Burnham was unwavering in his quest to craft a highly specific story about one teenage girl, not a grand treatise on the woes of her generation. Besides, “if I could talk about [technology] coherently, I would have written an essay, not made a film,” he jokes.
“It was never like, ‘How am I going to express the human condition through her?’ ” explains the writer-director. “She’s a living, breathing human being. I would watch videos of kids online and be like, ‘These people are compelling. It’s way beyond my struggle.’ I recognized it instantly for what it was, which was urgent and modern and painful and important.”
As “Eighth Grade” hits theaters, both Fisher and Burnham express optimism that audiences — especially those for whom middle school is a distant, vehemently repressed memory — will feel for Kayla and sense the value of seeing through her eyes.
“It is the job of we the people who are not 13-year-old girls to actually believe that they are as interesting and deep as us,” says Burnham. “The totality of the human experience is, ‘Some humans are 13-year-old girls going through these problems.’ ”
Fisher puts it more simply. “Everyone is human, so everyone can represent the human condition,” she says. “Why not a 13-year-old?”
For Burnham, harboring this belief had the added benefit of making it fairly straightforward to relate to (and write) his young protagonist.
“I wince sometimes at ‘coming-of-age story,’ because it makes me feel like people think it’s a less significant story or that it’s not about a fully formed person so you don’t care as much,” he says. “I’ve never felt that way. I’ve never felt like a fully formed person either. I’m still coming of age. The age is just, you know, 30.”Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @isaacfeldberg.