This past week, Eighth Grade was released to theaters nationwide after its success with screenings in select cities. The film is the directorial debut of comedian Bo Burnham, a multi-talented artist whose fame was found in the more early days of internet sensations. He posted his original songs on YouTube which led to comedy record deals, stand up specials, acting roles and a short lived television show. His comedy and fresh insight on things brought him an even bigger cult following as time went on. After his last stand up special “Make Happy” in 2016 , it was clear that Burnham was looking to write for more than himself. The premise of Eighth Grade is somewhat simple; it’s the last week of eighth grade for the anxiety ridden and puberty stricken Kayla. She posts Youtube videos that give advice she can’t seem to take herself as she prepares for the transition to high school. The film was written with very natural dialogue in a very modern suburban town setting. But one of the most honest parts of the film were the cast and their performances. The story about teens played by teens gave it that extra layer of realism.
Compare this to some of the other young adult movies and television shows that tend to cast older actors for younger roles. Love, Simon was a great teen film about a closeted high schooler and his journey toward acceptance and love that got praise for its LGBT exclusivity, but all of the main actors are in their twenties. Popular teen shows like 13 Reasons Why, Glee, Teen Wolf, etc, all tend to cast older adult actors to play coming of age teenagers. From a casting standpoint it’s easy to see the benefits. Adults can work more hours and don’t need to pay for onset tutors and guardian’s accommodations. Especially in television with long standing productions there is the difficulty of that age and its natural changes and instability.
Along with the trouble of more sexual scenes that are many times key in the plot, especially in High School set productions. There are shows like Stranger things who actively cast age appropriate actors for their younger roles, to an extent. The children set to be around 12 or so are assigned actors between the ages of 13-16 while the characters set at 16 or above are cast by adults. There seems to be no harm done but for viewers of that age range it always seems like true representation on television is out of reach. When these shows present these adults as younger they trick teenage viewers into thinking that is how someone their age should look. Teens aren’t idiots, they understand there’s a huge gap between reality and what’s on television but what we watch affects us to some degree. When the shows and films portraying the young adult experience depict the teens as these full grown, always put together models it sets a harmful comparison
This isn’t to say that adults playing teens can’t always be so harmful. In Lady Bird, the leading role of a high school senior is played by 22 year old Saoirse Ronan, but the actress requested to not conceal her acne troubles she was having at the time. “I thought it was a really good opportunity to let a teenager’s face in a movie actually look like a teenager’s face in real life,” . Eighth Grade did something similar with their leading lady played by Elsie Fisher, 13, showing off her imperfect complexion. Bo Burnham commented on the decision saying:
“It was never a question, and Elsie was desperate to see people in movies that had not-perfect skin. She was really bummed out about not seeing someone like her on camera. She was excited to do it. We were trying to show the truth, and there is nothing scary or weird about the truth, at least in this sense. All of the culture needs to do a better job of reflecting actual reality in so many ways.”
If you’re going to portray the high school experience how is it not complete without acne? If you’re going to cast an adult as a teen, at least put in the effort to make that come across as believable. Why are we valuing the stereotypical image of beauty over being true to the character? With this flaw in what is such a huge part of culture how can it not affect the body image and self esteem of its audience? An audience who is still trying to figure out how to be comfortable as themselves. Why do we value stereotypical perfection over being true to the characters?
Burnham, Bo, director. EIGHTH GRADE. A24, 2018.
Cauterucci, Christina. “The Adult Bodies Playing Teens on TV.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 13 Dec. 2017, www.slate.com/blogs/screen_time/2017/12/13/what_effect_does_it_have_on_viewers_when_mature_adults_play_teens_on_high.html.
Rubin, Rebecca. “Bo Burnham Wishes ‘Eighth Grade’ Wasn’t Rated R.” Variety, Variety, 24 July 2018, variety.com/2018/film/features/bo-burnham-interview-eighth-grade-elsie-fisher-1202877506/.