Bo Burnham is not and never has been a teenage girl. Sam Levinson is not and never has been a teenage girl. But for some reason, Burnham and Levinson both felt the urge to make movies following the perspectives of teenage girls. Burnham wrote and directed Eighth Grade and Levinson wrote and directed Assassination Nation, both released this year. I am not and never have been a teenage girl, but for some reason, these movies seemed to capture something that felt incredibly real to me – a level of reality rarely seen projected on the big screen.
I left both these movies wondering what made them so refreshing. My first guess was the fact that as a 22 year old, Burnham (28) and Levinson (33) are my fellow millennials. I believe our generation has a willingness and dedication to tackle topics considered taboo in the past, and seeing these explorations take place in major productions is gratifying. It’s time for millennial minds to enter the institution of cinema and change the rules.
A good place to start would be the film content rating system. When Eighth Grade was first released, it made headlines for the irony of receiving an R-rating. Despite Eighth Grade being a rather wholesome film, the Motion Picture Association of America abides by strict guidelines and no deliberation was sought to determine whether unaccompanied minors should be allowed to hear five f-bombs and a single mentioning of a blowjob. Of course, Burnham knew the movie would get slapped with an “R”, but presenting an accurate portrayal of middle-school life was his priority. Multiple think pieces condemned the MPAA for being unable to look beyond their rigid rules – which could grant a PG-13 rating to a movie littered with graphic violence – and consider these few curses in the context of the film.
It’s time for millennial minds to enter the institution of cinema and change the rules.
Burnham unabashedly delves into themes like the sexual curiosity of adolescents because these are conversations that need to be had. The MPAA should be capable of discerning the value in adolescents seeing their lived experience reflected on screen. The movie’s blowjob reference is by no means salacious or gratuitous. It arises when the endearing and anxiety-ridden protagonist, Kayla (played by Elsie Fisher), musters the courage to approach her crush. When he refuses to glance up from his phone to look at her, she lies about having a collection of nude selfies and a knack for fellatio. As Burnham described in an interview with IndieWire, “[Kayla’s] feelings and her heart rate are the plot of this movie”. Her tangible trepidation in this scene puts a spotlight on how technology and social media have prematurely accelerated teenage sexuality and the pressure that has been placed on young women, especially, as a result.
Assassination Nation also had to endure the myopia of the MPAA. This high school drama turns into a Purge-esque bloodbath once a small suburb’s online files and deepest secrets leak. The film is certainly deserving of its “R” rating, but perhaps more so due to the violence than the sexuality. The cause for concern is the part of a scene that had to be cut for the movie to avoid being deemed NC-17.
When Lily (played by Odessa Young), one among the foursome of teenage girls at the centre of this film, is called into the principal’s office to discuss the nude drawings she handed in for an assignment, the camera was initially supposed to flash a peak at her sketch of a woman seductively posing for a camera. The principal’s attempt to reprimand her for submitting something so “extreme” is immediately checked by Lily delivering a powerful defense, which ends with her asserting, “maybe it is explicit or extreme, but it sure as hell looks like life to me.” Considering that Assassination Nation depicts a town in which a mob of men seek to assuage their shattered egos by targeting teenage girls – subjecting them to sexual abuse and death threats – it becomes all the more troubling that the MPAA draws a line for inappropriate content at a nude illustration of a woman.
The movie begins with an overwhelming montage of trigger warnings (also featured in the trailer), which I cynically expected was incorporated in order to give the movie free rein to be an absolute shitshow. Instead, Levinson approaches the issues plaguing our world with sensitivity and nuance. I wish the MPAA had done the same. There is devastating irony in the fact that the MPAA-flagged scene also includes Lily telling the principal: “All you’re looking at is the nudity, but this isn’t about that. It’s about everything that goes into it.”
Burnham and Levinson commit to pulling back the curtain and dissecting all these small things that make up the bigger picture. Most of the time, what lies behind is simply human emotion. Eighth Grade is about the nervousness bubbling up your throat. Assassination Nation is about the rage exploding out of your chest. And what’s special about these movies is that they show that these feelings are productive, universal and valid. However, our current climate seems to be defined by everything being very loud, abrasive and abrupt, a state which is antithetical to the acknowledgment and nurturing of these feelings.
And what’s special about these movies is that they show that these feelings are productive, universal and valid.
After understanding why these movies felt so important, I was left with another question. If Burnham and Levinson set out to write stories that magnify all that underlies the incessant noise of today, why the lens of young women? Well, one could say they often have the most reason to be scared, the most reason to be mad and the least shame in expressing this. Despite their proficiency in locating, probing and discussing their concerns, they are not heard often enough.
But as I said, these feelings are universal. Burnham did not sit down with the intention of creating a movie around an eighth-grade girl. When he was seeking inspiration for how best to articulate his own anxieties, he watched a ton of kids’ YouTube vlogs and discovered that “the boys talked about Minecraft and the girls talked about their souls”. So, to him, the voice of Kayla made most sense. Levinson’s script sprung out of him a few days before his first daughter was born, fuelled by his fears of raising her in a world filled with misogyny and vitriol.
Burnham and Levinson approach what they believe to be broken in this world very differently. Burnham takes the seemingly trivial moments and makes them feel like life or death and Levinson presents cataclysmic scenarios that are literally life or death. However, at the core of both of these stories is an exploration of feelings – feelings that are ignored, feelings that are suppressed, feelings that are misunderstood. Yes, being a teen is terrifying and awkward, but so is pretty much everything. Feel it all and own it.