The social media generation is painted as probably the most narcissistic, self-centred and lonely one yet in comedian Bo Turnham's achingly honest debut, Eighth Grade.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is your standard Eighth Grade (or Year 9 to Brits) teenager. With acne, greasy hair and a little puppy fat still hanging loosely off her hips, Kayla doesn’t fit in to the world she wants to occupy. Spending hours on her phone at the dinner table, at school, in the car and at all hours of the night, Kayla’s world is dominated by the omnipresence of social media. She wakes up, watches a make up tutorial, and goes back to bed before snapping a selfie claiming she ‘woke up like this’. But far from being flawless, Kayla is a deeply troubled girl. She’s like, cool, and stuff, but like, doesn’t really show it because, like, at school she gets, like, nervous, and stuff. So you know, she’s just, like, trying to fit in.

Bo Burnham, who if you don’t know him is the musical comedian behind ‘Straight White Male’, ‘Kill Yourself’ and ‘Lower Your Expectations/If You Want Love’, is just ahead of the generation who can’t remember what life was like without social media. At 27, he’ll remember when the first of your friends at school started signing on to Facebook, and the horror at which parents recoiled when they found out their kids were on the now deceased MySpace or Bebo. We’ve moved on since then, but social media’s more dominant and entrenched in our lives than ever. Kids are now shunning Facebook and Twitter as ‘old news’ for Instagram and Snapchat, where airbrushing, photoshopping and filtering are taken as a given – and it’s as much to attract the likes of fellow girlfriends as it is to attract the opposite sex.

Bo Burnham Eighth Grade Elsie Fisher KaylaElsie Fisher as Kayla in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. Photo: A24

Kayla is in love with the school heartthrob, Aiden (Luke Prael), whose interests in girls are shaped by what he sees depicted in porn. In her efforts to make him see that she’s actually a cool girl, she searches for tips on YouTube and practices oral sex on a banana. It’s a depressing thought that sex is so easily accessible to the internet generation, and that the sexuality they are exposed to is one of a very specific type, largely directed at a male audience and intent on depicting women as sex objects for degrading. 

Kayla’s other aspiration is to climb into the good books of popular girl, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere). Kennedy and her friends spend more time on their phones than talking to one another, and make no efforts to include Kayla in their group even when she’s invited to a pool party at Kennedy’s house by her mother. It’s here that she meets Gabe (Jake Ryan), a fellow weird kid who shares her interests but not her goals of being popular.

With Eighth Grade, Burnham is covering well trodden ground. It’s surprising then that he manages to do it with refreshing honesty. You really feel for Kayla as she tries to navigate her way through social media, copying the big name YouTube stars she watches every day and trying to make a name for herself. Burnham’s awkward comedy is genuinely reflective of the experiences of teenagers today, and perfectly captures the desperation of being young and lonely. While some of the cliches of the high-school bildungsroman are still present, he successfully tells a remarkably adult story about what ‘kids these days’ are up to and thinking about when their parents close the bedroom door at night.

Eighth Grade is showing as part of the Sundance Film Festival.