Pretty/Ugly: Young Adult and Tiny Furniture, reviewed

In part because I saw them within days of each other, I kept thinking about Young Adult when I watched Tiny Furniture earlier this month. I’d like to say I hated them both, but it’s not that simple. Rather, neither made me feel very good about myself, or about anyone in it, or really about humanity in general. After Young Adult, I walked out despising the main character, Mavis Gray, played ably by Charlize Theron. In Tiny Furniture, I couldn’t stand our main character Aura, played by the film’s writer/director, Lena Dunham. They’re very different characters, but I noticed a lot of similarities. Chief among them was this: It’s not just that Mavis and Aura kinda suck – it’s also that they never redeem themselves.

The Gen Xer film critics I read found Young Adult scintillating; as a geriatric millennial, I found it less so. Perhaps I’m too young to give up hope on a redemption arc. Or perhaps that is what a redemption arc looks like, and I’m too young and naive to really embrace it. Then again, Tiny Furniture, which generated a lot of indie-flick buzz last year, is about the young and naive. Specifically, it’s about girls my age. And yet, that redemption arc I spoke of earlier? Poof. Completely nonexistent.

Interestingly, both of these movies garnered a lot of critical praise. Young Adult’s Oscar buzz has mostly fizzled out for writer Diablo Cody, director Jason Reitman, and co-star Patton Oswalt, but Charlize Theron was nominated for an Academy Award for her role. And Tiny Furniture was the indie flick to see this past spring. Lena Dunham has been appointed by whoever decides these things the voice of our post-grad, post-feminist, post-economy generation. On April 15 her show Girls debuts on HBO. (Read Catherine’s take on the Girls trailer here.) But Young Adult was cringingly awful to sit through, and after watching Tiny Furniture, it seemed obvious to me that whoever thought a) that the film was representative of our generation or b) funny really needed to have their head examined.

So here are two movies, with two upsetting, even disturbing women apparently representing two different generations. What gives?

Pretty.

Despite wincing at nearly every scene in Young Adult, a directorial decision I found fascinating was the attention the camera paid to Mavis maintaining and enhancing her beauty – close-ups of cuticles and body wax and tangled hair extensions. It’s interesting that seeing the grotesque behind-the-scenes business of getting a woman looking gorgeous is still so rare on-screen.

I guess you could switch out some words from that sentence and come up with a relatively apt summary of the film: It’s interesting that seeing the grotesque behind-the-scenes business of getting an addict to grow up is still so awful on-screen.

Because she is an addict. The fact that this definition is even debatable is in my mind one of the darkest aspects of the film. Labels help us come to terms with what we’re seeing. Diablo Cody, Jason Reitman, and Charlize Theron conspire to create a character who is funny, but fucked-up; successful, but unstable; overall, extremely difficult to put into a box. Her comedic elements are rooted in the same soil that is her deep dysfunction. I’m appalled at the film for including it and appalled at myself for actually laughing out loud at some of her behavior. The film throws that laughter back in our face. It holds up a mirror to the audience, reminding us that we reward the addict, or the popular girl, for this flavor of misdeed. In fact, we expect it. In fact, we think it’s pretty great, even when its ever-widening ramifications are increasingly present.

Those recurring makeup montages hint at the larger coverups in Mavis’ life: that she’s popular, successful, and happy. An addict scams. A popular girl pretends.

Somehow in creating a reprehensible character, Diablo Cody has managed to show enormous sympathy towards women. Popular girls don’t get a lot of play in literature and cinema. All-star athletes get their biopics and geeks get their revenge, but popular girls typically have to become lowly and unpopular in order to attain perspective, grace, and sympathy. (See: Quinn Fabray from Glee, Elle Woods from Legally Blonde, everyone in Mean Girls.) But lest we forget, those girls, made into such objects by the men around them (both the men they slept with and the men they rejected), are real people, too.

Ugly.

Tiny Furniture does not aim for a message nearly as lofty as Young Adult. I’m comfortable saying it is a much worse film. The only really courageous aspect of Tiny Furniture is that Dunham is pretty honest about what it feels like to be female but to not have the ideal female body type – in other words, to be an “ugly” girl. She’s unapologetic about her body in private, but in public lets other people dress her, talk down to her, dictate her desires, and push her around. Especially handsome men, who, as this movie aptly demonstrates, can be skillful at using insecure, unpretty women to get what they want.

That being said, it is difficult to imagine plummeting to rock bottom as hard as Aura does. It suggests a singular unawareness of herself that is incongruous with everything else we know about her. It was really hard to pity her, given that “being stuck” with her parents is moving back in with her cool artist mother in a Tribeca loft. Oh, with her enormously rich friends and an endless supply of pills. Tag this shit #firstworldproblems, or even #whitepeopleproblems, yeah?

Strangely, I think it’s supposed to be funny – like the twisted humor we draw from Young Adult. To Diablo Cody’s credit, Mavis is actually funny. Aura is not funny. Lena Dunham keeps drawing attention to Aura’s flaws, almost narcissistically, but it’s very difficult to find them humorous or take it lightly when its more grotesque than amusing. If Young Adult is an extremely dark comedy, Tiny Furniture is a tragedy masquerading as hipster comedy.

I saw Tiny Furniture on the recommendation of a friend (who hated it) and the question she had for me was Why couldn’t she just say no? No to these men in her life, in particular, like Keith, who emotionally manipulates her into sex outdoors in a pipe on the street. Like self-aggrandizing Jed’s obsessive self-entitlement and constant belittling of her. Why couldn’t she just say no? But that’s the whole point of the movie. The whole movie is examining why she didn’t just kick this freeloader off her couch, ignore the chef, and move to an apartment in Brooklyn with her best friend.

And the answer is because she’s a terrible person.

I say this with enormous sympathy. There is a point, while recovering from a breakup, moving back home with your parents, and feeling ugly and worthless, when you become an increasingly intolerable person. And you know how awful you’re being to your family and friends as you freak out about your own issues with dependence and independence and co-dependence but you’re stuck in some weird loop and you can’t stop. And then you start trying on new personas and wearing clothes you would never wear and you get a minimum wage job to “be real.” Then you discover just how little you make working a week at a restaurant. And you think, in the most entitled way possible: But I went to college! I am a really smart person, everyone says so! I thought this would be easier.

But, it’s not. And until you figure that out, for a little while, you kinda suck.

So I watched two movies about terrible people and both were difficult to sit through. They were terrible in slightly different ways. One was prettier than the other. One was more privileged than the other. One was younger. One was pushier. The cinematography of both carefully framed them in their bleak habitats, unable to relate to anyone around them.

But the question remains, readers: what is the point of making a film about a terrible person with no redemption arc? Does Aura grow at all, or learn anything? Does Mavis? Is addiction an excuse for being insufferable? Is privilege? Are either of these portrayals sympathetic? Does it matter? Which movie did you like better?

Answers due by Friday at 5pm. Check your work.

6 thoughts on “Pretty/Ugly: Young Adult and Tiny Furniture, reviewed”

  1. I haven’t seen Tiny Furniture but I did watch Young Adult. And against popular opinion, I loved it. Not in the sense that I’ll watch it over and over again, but I really loved its subversiveness. Here’s the thing. Not all people are redeemed. I’d argue that a lot aren’t. Sometimes we construct these narratives about ourselves and the people we know that suggest otherwise, when really, they (or we) aren’t saved or better or changed. I thought it was really brave storytelling to be honest. The idea that one moment can make a person better (liker the last night with Patton Oswalt’s character) is laughable in my opinion. Yeah, I was rooting for a turn around but the fact that one conversation with his totally messed up sister is enough to change Mavis’ mind is painfully realistic. I think a lot of people struggled with this movie because of its realism and familiarity. I know people like Mavis, addicts that for every opportunity they have been given have just thrown it all away for one more line or drink, one more escape from dealing with whatever it is they feel like they can’t deal with.

    For me, this movie really begged the question about what it is we expect from film/story. Where does entertainment become art, how is tragedy made meaningful in such a way that we can sit through it and experience it? The thing about Young Adult is that it wasn’t escapist at all – it was brutally inescapable. And right from the beginning with both the scoring and the cinematography that seemed to be the carefully controlled intent of the filmmakers.

  2. I feel really uncomfortable with the hating on Aurora, not because privilege stuff- yeah, the privilege stuff plays into it- but because I read her as a person with Mental Health Disabilities. I have met people like her. Some of those people like her I met in the psych ward. What makes her seem distant from the popular ideas of what it is to have an MHD- what makes it easier to see her as a spoiled, privileged brat- is that she is so privileged in other ways.

    Bicorama mentions that she sees mavis as more sympathetic because “Mavis has a disease.” Mavis has addition issues, which on a service end get put in a parallel or- particularly in low income areas- combined system of services with MHDs. Mavis is more clearly in line with what we see as someone with a problem- though she’s successful, we have an awareness of substance abuse issues in our culture that allows us to Identify that she’s a functioning addict.

    What we don’t have is a destigmatization of certain MHDs- particularly personality disorders!- that allows us to identify the difference between a simply “bad” person, and a person who might need help, especially when they are otherwise privileged.

    (That’s not to say that Aurora’s behavior isn’t kind of crap, but I read it as Issues not “bad person”.)

  3. I thoroughly despised Tiny Furniture (didn’t see Young Adult). She kept using the fact that she was in Ohio for a couple years as an excuse for everything. Did they not have pants or hairbrushes in Ohio?

    I tended to agree with the rants both by her sister and her former best friend.

    I understand needing a month or whatever to rest after a breakup or a graduation, but I didn’t get that vibe from her entirely. I assume she was pretty miserable to be around even before all that (her best friend’s mention of her only being in the library at Oberlin, combined with her lack of apparent drive when she was in school.)

    I didn’t find her cokehead friend to be all that bad. Just kind of a sad, parentless party girl who made up for it by… partying.

    So jealous of that awesome loft, cool sister, and cool mom.

  4. Thank you for writing about these movies!

    Honestly I found the both insufferable, but I guess I was more sympathetic to Mavis. Mavis has a disease. Addiction is a disease. Addicts deserve a level of sympathy in my opinion. I feel for her, because she clearly has some Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Spectrum stuff going on with the hair pulling. I think she is kind of representative of the kind of pressure society puts on people to be ~perfect~. Obviously she couldn’t cope with that, hence the religiousness that went into keeping up appearances while being completely void of anything meaningful on the inside. I almost see the scene on the lawn as being an impromptu-intervention and I found something admirable in Mavis’ refusal to bow to this group of people trying to “treat” her illnesses. That being said she was insufferable drunk.

    BUT AURA WAS AN INSUFFERABLE PRIVILEGED BRAT. AND I HATED HER THOROUGHLY. I wanted to sic my working class Polish-American mother on her. But seriously, my mom would whip her into shape. My mom’s tough, she makes drill sergeants look nice. There’d be no joblessness, there’d be no freeloading (my mom keeps a tab of the money I owe her), there’d be no quitting after two days. My mom wouldn’t put up with the lying on the floor and whining. There’d be no sympathy, basically. SHE WOULD BE FORCED TO GROW UP.

    Throughout all of Tiny Furniture I felt like Aura was dealing with stuff at 23 or whatever she was that I dealt with at a younger age (when it came to asserting herself at least, and I still struggle with it, but I’ve come along way from where I was). I just wanted her to stand up for herself and tell all her terrible friends to f*** off. She was more pathetically annoying than a Woody Allen character in my opinion. And she was really privileged on top of it. UGH. Really, I wish I could go home to my swank Manhattan loft and cry to my sympathetic artist mommy, but oh wait I can’t, because I’m working class. Thanks for reminding me!

    Anyways, I want to write about the OCD spectrum and Young Adult and Shame… because I saw those movies days apart.

Leave a Reply