For a long time I thought Lena Dunham was my little secret. Sure, her feature Tiny Furniture (in which she wrote/directed/stars in) was getting critical buzz, but I was the only one in my circle of cinephile friends who had actually seen it. It played for a week at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles and after seeing a trailer I knew immediately it was my kind of film. Young entitled New Yorkers. A woman lost in a post collegiate haze. People making obviously poor romantic decision. These things are my bread and butter. Hey, I love The Avengers as much as the next person, but I do long for the day super hero teams add a neurotic upper eastside Jewish girl like Dunham to their mix. Loki would be left powerless by her sarcasm. She would begin a hopeless one sided romance with Bruce Banner, or better yet, The Hulk. Two hundred million opening weekend? Try three hundred.
If you haven’t seen Tiny Furniture, the story is one of those seemingly plot-less films that actually say everything true and important about young life. Aura comes home from college. She gets a crappy job. Fights with her mother. Has sex with the wrong guy. Doesn’t have sex with an equally wrong guy. The end. But within this tale is dialogue so true to the twenty-something experience. We have been raised to believe we should have it all; the everyone-gets-a-trophy mentality. Aura suffers from this no more than most as she complains to anyone who will listen and some who won’t. For this reason, I know foolish people who have dismissed her character as unlikable. Who wants to spend ninety minutes with someone like this? But the reason to watch is because of how brave the film is. In film all I ask for is unflinching honesty and few characters are as honest as Dunham’s portrayal of Aura. That’s why, even as a man, I find her so relatable. She’s not afraid how she’s going to come off. And I don’t just mean in her actions. Physically, Dunham is not your typical actress. She’s not a stick figure. She’s built like a real American woman, which means she has some weight on her. Nevertheless she is treated as a sexual being. You don’t need to look like Angelina Jolie to have sex. It’s somewhat of a sad state of affairs that I have to count this as unique in a film. But that’s the world we live in. And in the subtext of Tiny Furniture, we see a girl dealing with the fact she is not as conventionally beautiful as her thin young sister and older mother. However what she needs to learn is that her fearlessness is far more important.
The Criterion DVD of Tiny Furniture further exposes how brave Dunham is as an artist. We learn just how auto-biographical (and not) the film is. Those women playing her sister and mother are Dunham’s real life sister and mother. Are Aura’s feelings the feelings Dunham has for her real family? The lines of reality have been blurred, making the final product feel all the more powerful. But this DVD is itself an act of bravery. It features Dunham’s early films from college. They are rough. Beyond just unrefined. I thought a lot about my own student films and if I would ever let such a collection be seen by the public. Again Dunham is truly fearless. She’s smart enough to know Creative Nonfiction (her “first feature”) has major technical and story issues. And yet she exposes herself as an artist even more by including it.
Obviously Dunham is no longer my little secret. With the new HBO series Girls (of which Dunham writes every episode) she is the talk of the town. Everywhere you turn there is an article praising its realism or bashing it for its lack of diversity. Personally, I love the show because it gives me more of what I want. It’s essentially Tiny Furniture the television series. Dunham’s Aura is now Hannah, a girl who is possibly even more entitled and makes even poorer decisions. The themes are the same. Girls is obviously more refined. There’s an actual budget here. Dunham no longer has to shoot in her parent’s apartment. But it’s those same issues we all have dealt with. In episode one Hannah dismisses the notion she should get a job at McDonalds. It’s beneath her. She is a college graduate. We laugh and scoff at this notion. After all a job is a job and in this economy, blah blah blah. But would you go apply at McDonalds? You there with the liberal arts degree. Of course not and neither would I. How many of viewers that have accused her character of being so spoiled would actually serve Big Macs all day? And this is the brilliance of Dunham as a writer. She forces those in her generation to take a look in the mirror. To acknowledge that we too are entitled. That we too make mistakes. Girls or boys. We should take that job at McDonalds. After all as Hannah is told on the show, McDonalds does make a product that is affordable and people love.
When a young filmmaker hits it big at an early age they often are given hyperbolic compliments. Remember when Time magazine called M. Night Shyamalan the next Spielberg? Yup, that happened. But I’m prepared to take shit for this: Lena Dunham is the next Woody Allen. She is a filmmaker that acknowledges her insecurities and faults in a way not seen since Woody came along. She does it for a generation that is more obsessed with their i-products than their actual lives. Neither are “sexy” but neither are afraid to treat themselves as sexual beings. I can already see that Dunham will continue to play that same version of herself much like Woody has played that same neurotically charming mess since the 1960’s. In a decade we will look to see who Dunham has cast in what will become known as the typical “Lena Dunham” role. The neurotic girl who makes the wrong decision. That person we have all been but aren’t as brave as Dunham to admit it. If you’re enjoying Girls on HBO I strongly recommend seeing Tiny Furniture. Not only does it share the same DNA but it’s a chance to watch the genesis of an artist.
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Will Link is a new contributor to You Won Cannes. He is one hosts of the weekly film and pop culture podcast, Will. Sean. Podcast? Check out new episodes every weekend, each featuring a different guest.