I’m wary of people who write, direct and star in their own films. It smacks of someone who doesn’t collaborate well. And, on the whole, I’m usually more interested in the creative communities and rich work that collaboration often results in. However, at a time when women are so marginalized in the film industry, it cannot go unacknowledged that for Lena Dunham to tell her own story, in her own way, without the industry demanding that a man hold her hand throughout the process was a massive coup. And the indie arm of the industry is just as susceptible to that sort of behavior as the giant studios are.
This is an almost totally autobiographical story about a girl who returns home after graduating to her family home in Tribecca, with no idea what she’s going to do with her life now. The drive and ambition of her wildly successful artist mother and her high achieving younger sister only serve to throw her listlessness into a harsher light. Suffering from intense boredom and constant badgering from her mother, she finds a shitty job so that she has something to do. Reigniting childhood friendships provides some release from having to face any real world decisions but that distraction can only last so long before the real world starts to close in again. Love, and a purpose are what she longs for but neither make an appearance.
The good thing about this film is how honest it is. This really is a warts and all story. I should confess now that I haven’t seen ‘Girls’. Yes, I have been living under a rock for the last 5 years and yes, I mean to remedy these unfortunate circumstances as soon as humanly possible. But as I understand it, true ‘honesty’ is what Dunham is so often concerned with. For example, there’s a near-total honesty about what a bored, 20-something white girl in a crisis actually looks like. Dunham wanders around in her tatty pants, tummy stretching her t-shirt, cellulite-y thighs, skin blemishes and greasy hair lying in lank waves. It’s just really normal. So thank god for Lena Dunham because I have NEVER seen a woman on film look like I do when I’ve got a day off and end up watching Buffy for 12 straight hours and eating all my meals in bed. It shouldn’t be rare and courageous act to show that on film, it should be totally commonplace, but it feels daring so I think Dunham might be leading the revolution.
Also, the story is not airbrushed. Not many people would have the courage to have their real life sister, scream “…you’re so desperate, it’s disgusting, and you put yourself on YouTube so millions of people can see you, and the homeless guy who was staying in our house wouldn’t even fuck you…” in your face in the kitchen of your own real life mothers loft apartment. I mean, she could have left that bit out and painted herself in a slightly better light. But she lays it all out there for us to see (and cringe at).
But it’s the honesty and normality of it that is also its failure as a film. The fact that, just as so many privileged girls in their 20’s fail to appreciate their comfortable circumstances, Dunham drags herself round New York for 98 minutes without a single thought for how bloody lucky she is. Yes, she has no idea what to do with her degree, she’s been dumped, she’s working a dead end job and she has to deal with shitty men who use her for their own gains but she’s living rent free in the sweetest apartment in the most exciting city in the world and can basically do whatever the hell she likes. So I tend not to have much sympathy for her. She’s naïve, lacking in imagination and frankly, a bit pathetic. She’s like a more intelligent, less manicured Made In Chelsea character. And just like so many graduates (especially arts graduates) her middle class existential crisis finds no resolution during that time. Mine lasted for about 10 years. I’d need a 13-hour, Jacques Rivette style epic to get to bottom of it. So perhaps it’s absolutely right that during the snapshot of her life we are witness to, she doesn’t find her way out of her rut. But on film, it’s just really boring. Technically I should identify with her, being a white, middle class woman who also found herself in the proverbial cul-de-sac that is being an arts graduate (albeit in much less material comfort than Dunham). But I just find her irritating. Maybe it’s the fact that I do recognise her situation that makes it so easy for me to criticise it.
The only character I have a real affection for is childhood friend Charlotte, “Tribeccas solution to Marianne faithful”. I was worried for a while that I liked her because she is beautiful and glamorous in a world where the women are real and recognizable (which would make the case for ‘real’ women on camera even stronger to re-train our brains out of our addiction to beauty). But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because she’s fun. And that is what this film is seriously lacking. It’s just not that much fun watching Dunham feel sorry for herself. So thank god for Charlotte, who could so convincingly already be a character from Made In Chelsea.
So I’ve learnt something about myself here. I’m not as much of a purist as I’d like to think. Evidently, I don’t just watch films to be educated or in order to empathize with someone else’s experience. I need a little bit of escapism, or failing that, inspiration. Who knew?
It does pass the Bechdel test though…..