Of all the topics available to new American independent directors, “middle class malaise” is the most difficult to pull off. A skilled screenwriter and director can turn it out beautifully – hiya, Noah Baumbach – but all too often the subject just reeks too strongly of First World Problems, and so it should. Really, who gives a shit if your mother is distant or you have trouble connecting when more and more people are being thrust into poverty every day? If you’re going to attempt writing about the pitfalls of your privileged life, then you better have something new to say or at least a new way to say it.
On paper, Lena Dunham’s debut feature Tiny Furniture – one that she wrote, directed and starred in – is exactly the worst kind of narcissistic, precious American indie. Aura, a thinly-veiled stand-in for Dunham, comes home her artist mother’s New York home after graduation, and spends the next few months wasting her time with old friends and slackers while she tries to figure out who she is and what she wants to do in the world. It should be as shallow and self-absorbed as it sounds, but somehow, it isn’t. Instead, it’s very funny and, by the time it’s over, quite moving, simply because Dunham is a prodicgiously talented writer.
There’s not one line of the script that isn’t highly articulate, delicately phrased and arch, taking the loose, improvisational style of the mumblecore scene that she’s emerged from and refining it into something more written and thoughtful. She has a keen eye for specifics and renders each character and the world they inhabit with startling accuracy – the idea one of them has become “internet famous” for a YouTube series called “The Nietzschean Cowboy”, in which he espouses nihilistic sentiments whilst riding on a toy horse, is spot on to what these people would care about and find funny. She also, miraculously, creates genuine sympathy for her protagonist and her quarterlife crisis. Aura and her friends may be narcissistic, weed-smoking, pill-popping slackers, but Dunham is aware of it, and asks you to care about them anyway.
Of course, there are going to be a fair few people who won’t find very much to care about in these people. Like Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg, which this film feels most similar to, your enjoyment depends on whether you can stomach taking an active interest in people who are, essentially, terrible. For those of us who can, though, Tiny Furniture has a lot more to offer than just witty one liners and YouTube references. Dunham understands that a lot of people her age these days are terribly confused by all the options and choices that they have been afforded, and are given so many platforms by which to present themselves that it eventually leads to obsession and/or defeat. Moments like the one where Aura finally screams at her mother have genuine pathos not just because she is, of course, also screaming at herself, but because it captures the sheer frustration of a modern life full of too much information. Boo hoo, you may say, to which I have no response. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s been 50 years since Benjamin Braddock, and Aura is a graduate whose particular malaise is far more attuned with the here and now.
It’s a debut film through and through, so it’s not without its flaws, but Lena Dunham has the potential to be one of this generation’s great screenwriters. In the trailer for her upcoming HBO comedy Girls, her character proclaims “I think I might be the voice of my generation!” If she starts writing about characters with genuine, real-world concerns, she may well be.