Bo Burnham refused to edit R-rated "Eighth Grade" into PG-13 and advises teenagers to "sneak in"

On "Salon Talks," director of the teen movie calls out Motion Picture Association for conservative R-rating

Published July 21, 2018 9:00AM (EDT)

Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher in "Eighth Grade" (A24)
Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher in "Eighth Grade" (A24)

Why is “Eighth Grade,” a realistic movie about a 13-year-old girl’s very awkward last week of middle school, rated R? Parents, media critics and the director and writer Bo Burnham are scratching their heads, wondering why the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) considers a movie about normal teenage experiences too raunchy for teens to watch without adult supervision.

Burnham called the MPAA’s R rating a “bummer” on “Salon Talks,” Salon’s daily video interview show. "They’d rate kids' lives NC-17 if they could. The truth is, ‘Eighth Grade’ is R-rated because eighth grade is R-rated,” Burnham told Salon. “I can promise to parents that this movie is not exposing anything to kids that kids aren't very, very aware of.”

Does “Eighth Grade” deserve an R-rating?

Director Bo Burnham responds to MPAA's conservative caution

“Eighth Grade,” a coming-of-age dramedy, follows 13-year-old Kayla as she tries to survive the last week of her disastrous eighth-grade year. Kayla struggles with confidence every step of the way as she encounters mean girls, pool parties, and the dinner table with her dorky dad.

After finding out about the MPAA’s R rating, Burnham says he declined the option to edit the film down to a PG-13 rating. “It didn't feel like our responsibility to portray a reality that was appropriate for kids, but rather portray the reality that the kids are actually living in,” Burnham said. “We weren't going to cut anything.”

There are some sexually suggestive scenes in “Eighth Grade” that could have contributed to the rating. Kayla googles instructions for how to give a blow job, which subsequently grosses her out. In order to impress her crush, Kayla implies that she has a folder of nude photos saved on her phone (which, of course, she doesn’t). The MPAA's rating system, which has been around for nearly 50 years, is obtuse, and this controversy is not without precedent. A documentary, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” made in 2006, examines the process and its lack of transparency

According to Burnham, “Eighth Grade” is “a soft R.” Common Sense Media, a non-profit that helps families make smart media choices by watching, rating and posting detailed reviews of films, says Burnham’s movie is “extremely realistic,” great for families and appropriate for children aged 14 and up.

Turns out, strong language may have been the deal breaker for the MPAA, according to Betsy Bozdech, executive editor of ratings and reviews at Common Sense Media. “We had our initial feedback before the MPAA put out their rating and I was pretty sure it was going to be a PG-13," said Bozdech. "But I hadn’t counted all of the swear words, and I think that’s what pushed it over the edge.”

“Eighth Grade” uses the f-word five times. “If you say the f-word more than once, you kind of automatically get an R rating,” Bozdech said. Given that history, the MPAA’s R rating here isn’t all that surprising. Films like “Billy Elliot,” “The King’s Speech” and “Bully,” all films with teachable moments for teenagers, were similarly rated R because of cursing. “It seems like there’s one every couple years where everyone kind of scratches their heads and says huh?” Bozdech said. For “Eighth Grade,” it’s tougher to swallow because the film feels sincere and like its intentions are in the right place, f-bombs and all.

Common Sense Media asks parents to consider watching “Eighth Grade” with their teenagers. The group's Senior TV Editor Polly Conway offers this advice: “Even though it may be painfully awkward to sit for that hour and 40 minutes and watch some rough stuff with your kid, it offers an opportunity now that you have this shared experience.” Instead of bringing up a topic like sex out of the blue, parents can ask about the decisions the characters make during specific scenes.

Burnham, however, stands by everyone getting the chance to see the film — box office dollars aside. His advice? “Buy a ticket for 'Ocean's 8' and just sneak in."

Watch Salon’s full interview with Bo Burnham

Director opens up about his YouTuber past

By Alexandra Clinton

Alexandra (Lexie) Clinton is Salon's Executive Producer.

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